Football at the top is increasingly about the little things. Elite programs recruit great players, have superb facilities, and all the latest and greatest brick and mortar assets designed to continue attracting the nation’s best athletes to the nation’s best programs. Each year, many college programs adopt a theme (a slogan or, some might say, a catchphrase) for the season. For example, for the 2019 season, the team urged itself to “Do More!” One of Mark Richt’s slogans at UGA was “Finish the Drill,” and Kirby launched “Attack The Day” when he took the reins from Coach Richt. The best coaches use every motivational technique they can imagine to help transform individual players into a team.
Notice that those themes call for physical action – DO – ATTACK – FINISH. That kind of appeal has been around forever and likely does not stick in players’ subconscious. Most motivational techniques are rah-rah approaches and have limited long-term effects even though team leaders parrot them. Coaches change the theme every offseason, hoping to bring a new energy wave to the program for the arriving new football season. This year, in the wake of covid and recent social unrest, Coach Smart decided to use Georgia’s annual tradition of establishing a theme to reinforce the unity and togetherness needed to reach team goals, despite external forces that could derail a championship run in 2021.
From the top of the food chain, Kirby Smart believes that the answer to achieving team goals lies inside the heads of his players and staff. The message has shifted from Attack/Do/Finish to Think/Feel/Together :
“The end goal is to have a net sum gain of positives, and you’re trying to constantly move people from over here, who might be on the negative side and then on the positive side bring more guys along. As you do that, the end goal is that you get more results- that you’re able to win championships. We never shy away from that being our goal, but it’s not something we have to talk about every day. Why would you talk about that every day because you’re focusing on the wrong thing if that’s the case? You need to focus on how you’re going to do that. How do we get that net sum to positive over negative, and that’s by pulling everybody in the right direction. That’s our goal.”
“We are investing time into us. We are investing time in connection. Connection is important. It (2020) was a strange year for everybody in college football where you had some kids on teams where they had only been on zooms their entire time and never been face-to-face with anybody. The connection and the dialogue and ‘what is my why,’ ‘what is our why,’ and then demanding the standard, has been a big topic for us. You asked how do you see that you’re getting results for that. It’s every day in the sprints. It’s every time something adverse happens. It’s holding the guys accountable. I’m not waiting on practice one to see the effects of the stuff we’re doing. I’m seeing the fruits of the labors when more guys are coming in on their own- coming in to throw or work out extra- that culture is what you have to have in order to be elite, and that’s what we’re always working towards.”
As professionals, who know the value of practicing skills to maximize results, Georgia began using “skull sessions” to allow players and coaches to air their concerns and seek solutions to the issues voiced by teammates. Here is what Kirby said in a March interview:
“Yeah, our skull sessions have continued. We don’t stop that when spring practice starts, that would be counterproductive. We have continued those every Wednesday. We come together 20 to 25 minutes in small groups. We rotate coaches around so everyone can visit with a different group.”
Offensive lineman and one of the main leaders of Georgia’s 2020 team, Jamaree Salyer, believes the skull sessions have changed the team:
“We are having these deals called ‘Skull Sessions.’ I think we’ve been doing them for the past five or six weeks for three days out of the week … we would talk about all types of stuff; what is your why, our team DNA, goal settings, all types of different aspects, and we hit one different topic a week. So yeah, it has been pretty good, and it has been pretty good for us. One of my favorite ones is the why, of course. If you can know a guy’s why your teammate’s why then you can push them to do things that you never thought they could do. It has made us a totally different team.”
With all the talk about change, some things will remain unchanged as Georgia incorporates a new signing class onto the roster. Kirby continued:
“Yeah, I don’t want to say that we are changing our DNA. I think we are defining our DNA a little better. Every team has its own DNA, right? You’re not going to have the same exact team as you did the year before; the personalities are different. It doesn’t matter if you are talking about running or throwing the ball, but the makeup of what is between the ears of your players, that dynamic changes. I think defining that every year is really critical. Know who you are. Know your strengths and weaknesses and be intentional about that with your players where they can set the standard of demands of what it is.”
Of course, no new initiative has value without the cooperation of the rank and file. Here is what punter Jake Camarda said about the concept in an interview at the start of Spring drills:
“It is probably just…we are really working on our mindset and that kind of stuff right now, just having the right mindset. Just getting to know each other and really just forming a family bond on this team. I would probably just say something around there. We feel that the teams that are super close are able to make big runs. There is nothing more important than getting to enjoy being out on the field with your brothers and your coaches and just getting to know each other. When you know everyone that you are playing with, when you are really tight with the guys you are playing with, you will play harder. We are just trying to continue to have that culture.”
Every level of instruction is involved with the message of unity, understanding, and mutual respect. Safety Lewis Cine talked about the role of the strength coaches:
“We have been working on trying to find what can help us connect as a whole outside of football. We are trying to get to know each other on a deeper level than just X’s and O’s. The strength coaches are a crucial part of getting to know each other. We are trying to get to know each other more than just seeing a guy or going to class with a guy. We need to know what’s their ‘why’ or what makes them go. Really getting to know them as a person, not just as an athlete or a football player.”
Despite Kirby Smart’s success at Georgia, the fan base wants a championship — now. The question for 2021 revolves around how his team responds to Kirby’s shift from the traditional motivational techniques to one based on well-being and a positive state of mind?
We will begin to know the answer on September 4 in Charlotte.