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Go Fast and Take Chances: Football Innovator’s Techniques Play Well on Ice

By Jayson Hron - USA Hockey, 09/11/14, 12:00PM MDT


Chip Kelly apprenticed 19 seasons before becoming a big-time head football coach. For a thinker, that’s ample time for innovation, and Kelly made the most of it. When he finally unleashed his creation, scoreboards blinked for mercy.

In four seasons leading the Oregon Ducks, Kelly amassed 46 wins, three Pac-12 Conference championships and arguably the most prolific, revolutionary, fast-paced offensive attack in college football history. Not bad for a guy whose favorite athlete was a defenseman. Then again, that defenseman was Bobby Orr.

Buoyed by his college success, Kelly rose to the NFL last season, taking the helm in Philadelphia. All he did there was reverse the moribund Eagles’ fortunes, leading them to a 10-6 record and the NFC Eastern Division championship.

“Coaching is one thing and one thing only,” said Kelly at a coaching clinic in 2011. “It’s creating an environment so the player has an opportunity to be successful.”

And while almost every coach would agree, many argued with Kelly’s methods. He questioned everything. He stopped using the huddle. He embraced sport science. He turned the traditional football practice model on its ear, accelerating the pace and rhythm with productive outlandishness, more reps and more activity.

In short, Kelly didn’t only challenge the status quo, he overwhelmed it.

The late Father of Russian Hockey, Anatoli Tarasov, believed in similar methods.

“Everyone knows that in order to raise the level of sports skills, it is not enough to change the quality of the training and teaching process,” he wrote in Road to Olympus. “Sometimes this requires principally new changes in all the focus of organization and methods of conducting such sessions.”

Tarasov rode this breed of innovation to 10 world championships and three Olympic gold medals. USA Hockey borrowed elements of it to build its American Development Model.

“Tarasov was inquisitive and he looked for advantages,” said USA Hockey’s Lou Vairo, a 2014 United States Hockey Hall of Fame inductee who knew Tarasov and studied the game alongside him. “He wasn’t satisfied with just improving, he wanted his program to be the best, and he knew, to reach that level, they had to do things that other countries weren’t doing.”

Kelly brings a similar approach to the football field. His practice methods are instructive, and they adapt well to hockey, with an emphasis on pace, efficiency and skill development.

It all begins with pre-practice organization. Tarasov announced his practice plans before practice, so there was no wasted time on the ice. Kelly believes in a similar approach.

“I don’t care what it is, but when they get to practice, they should be doing something,” he said during the 2011 Coach of the Year Clinic. “When players get to the practice field, it’s practice time. That period is not a walk-through period that we can teach in a classroom. The practice field is not where we talk. It’s where we do the skills. We want to keep the words there to a minimum. The words you do use must have meaning. (Players) don’t want to hear you give a 10-minute clinic in the middle of the field.”

Progressing into warm-ups, Kelly’s team, like most, incorporates dynamic stretching, but the coaches’ involvement – and more specifically, the rationale for their involvement – is something every coach should assimilate.

“We emphasize what it is and we coach it,” said Kelly. “That bothers me when I go to a high school practice. The entire team is stretching, and the coaches are standing around talking to one another or throwing the ball around.

“A coach shouldn’t worry about spending time in stretching if they don’t care about stretching. They show how they care about coaching by their actions during the period, not their words. If you don’t think stretching is important, don’t do it. If you think it’s important, you have to show your team it’s important.”

And, as Grantland author Chris B. Brown wrote recently, when the drills begin, no team practices more efficiently than Kelly’s team. It’s up-tempo and full speed, often using the football equivalent of station-based practice and small-area games. On Soviet ice, Tarasov called it a “circular assembly line” in which he could accommodate up to 45 players. Today’s American rinks recognize it as an engaging, action-packed component of USA Hockey’s ADM.

“When practice starts until practice ends, we practice as hard as we can,” said Kelly. “We practice fast and we finish everything.”

Through experience, Kelly learned that 10 minutes for a particular drill was often too long, even for NCAA Division I scholarship athletes, so he accelerated the pace and reduced the duration. As a result, his players were more engaged and they gained from the additional reps. As Brown wrote, the benefits extended “beyond the effect on opposing defenses” to a skill and recruiting advantage.

“Because of the reps we get in practice, our guys get a chance to develop a little more,” explained Kelly. “You go to some teams and the ‘threes’ aren’t getting many reps – they are losing time compared to our guys.”

Another Kelly coaching tip relates to execution during drills. “If you accept it, expect it,” he says. It’s not hard to see hockey parallels, with obvious things like penalties, but also with subtleties like “magic pucks” compensating for mistakes.

“If you accept a player going eight yards when he’s supposed to go 10, it will happen on Friday night,” he told a collection of high school coaches. “If you allow a player to hold in practice and don’t correct him, you should expect that on Friday night. If that’s your mentality, never yell at an official over a call. You told your players it’s all right to cheat. (Then) when the player gets caught holding, you get mad at him? You can’t have it both ways. You (either) teach him to cheat or you teach him the skill. If the coach doesn’t hold the player to a high standard, (the player) isn’t going to do it. That’s your job as a coach. You have to push them to places they don’t believe they can go, because you see things they don’t see.”

A final Kelly nugget can be found in his communication with players.

“The players today don’t do it ‘because I told you so,’” he said. “We don’t live in that society anymore. Some of us grew up in it, but it doesn’t work anymore. Players today want to know why. Tell them why. If you don’t have a good reason why we do things, we probably shouldn’t be doing them.”

In college and pro football circles, Kelly’s methods were at first viewed with some derisiveness, but as Brown wrote, “the NFL has gone from doubting Chip Kelly to trying to mimic his innovations.”

As hockey coaches nationwide look ahead to the new season, Kelly’s innovation can be their inspiration. Good things come to the bold, fast and development-minded.

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