By Dan Guttenplan, FNF Coaches Managing Editor
Wheelersburg High (Ohio) coach Rob Woodward saw his team reach the regional finals last football season, and it’s very possible his players excelled more in the classroom than on the gridiron. Woodward’s team earned Academic All-Ohio honors from the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association.
- Turn academic success into competition. Football players like to compete, and Woodward draws on that spirit by pitting his team against others around the state in a battle for the highest team GPA. Wheelersburg’s top 22 players – the starters – had a combined GPA of 3.76 last season. The team had 27 players who achieved a 3.5 GPA or higher.
- Recognize individuals for academic success. Woodward takes time to recognize individuals for academic success at the end-of-year awards banquet. “Any player who had a 4.0 for the first nine weeks stands up, and we recognize those names. When freshmen see that, they get energized. They want to be someone who has that kind of GPA.”
- Stress the importance of being well-rounded. Sure, high school coaches want student-athletes who can perform in practice and on Friday nights. But they also want players who graduate and move on to greater things. Woodward is quick to note that three of his seniors who earned All-Conference or All-District last year also graduated with GPAs of 3.6 or higher.
- Create a lasting visual for academic success. Football teams often recognize the top performers in the program by inducting those players into a school Hall of Fame. Future generations of players study the stats and highlights of those players, and strive to perform at that level. Woodward also recognizes the top academic performers in his program by laying a brick on the walkway into the stadium for any player who earns Academic All-Ohio.
- Monitor players’ grades constantly. Wheelersburg has four marking periods per school year – with each consisting of nine-week cycles. Woodward recognizes that if he waits nine weeks to get a progress report on his players’ academics, he’s waited too long. He gets academic reports on his players every 4 ½ weeks, and he follows up immediately with any player who has below a “C” average in a specific class.
- Create a partnership with teachers. When a player is struggling academically, Woodward initiates contact with that player’s teachers. He puts the player on an “academic watch list,” meaning that players’ teachers provide Woodward with regular reports on that player’s progress (or continued struggles). “The professors report back to me weekly.”
- Make arrangements for players to get additional support. Sometimes, there is more to a student’s academic struggles than a lack of motivation. All of the rah-rah speeches in the world may not help a student who has learning disabilities or distractions at home. Woodward will seek out peer advisors, tutors and academic achievement classes for his players who require additional support.
- Stress accountability. Sometimes, the answer for a player struggling in class is simply taking more pride in his work. It’s paramount that a coach makes that distinction. If a player’s excuses for poor performance in the classroom are nothing more than that – excuses – a coach needs to motivate the player to be more accountable. “They know they need to hold their end of the rope in terms of the academic part,” Woodward said. “We can’t do it for them.”
- Take away football as a punishment. Every school has minimum requirements for players to remain academically eligible in-season. But most coaches allow a player to participate in offseason strength programs as long as the player is meeting the minimum eligibility standard. Not Woodward. If a player has below a “C” average in the spring, Woodward will remove the player from the offseason conditioning program. “They don’t like to be removed from doing the things they need to do in the offseason. They typically work hard to get back in good standing.”
- Show the relationship between academic and athletic success. A good player can become a great player by working to improve his weaknesses. The same can be said for any aspect of life. “We strive for excellence in everything we do,” Woodward said. “It all begins in the classroom.”
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