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Soon after Randy Jackson took over as the offensive coach of the German Football League’s Potsdam Royals, he scolded his players in a video conference, saying that if they did not come to the team’s first practice in the best shape of their lives, they would be letting each other down.
Jackson spent 30 years coaching high school football in Texas, and he assumed that the stern approach he had used with American teenagers would also work with grown European men.
But at the Royals’ first spring practice last April, Jackson’s players could hardly get through a routine rotation of conditioning drills without running to the sideline to vomit. That was when he knew he would need to find another way to motivate them.
“I guess they showed me,” he said.
This is a challenging time for coaches, even those who don’t change countries.
Athletes all over the world and at all levels of play are pushing back against traditional coaching techniques. Cases of sexual and emotional abuse have roiled sport and raised suspicions. Many parents are more vigilant about how their children are treated, to say nothing of the parents who harass coaches who don’t recognize the greatness they see in their children.
Athletes themselves — following the examples of stars such as Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka — are prioritizing their own mental and physical health over on-the-field success.
Coaches have to adjust to all of that while still finding ways to motivate their athletes to push their limits and, hopefully, win.
“How they coach is definitely being impacted by how their athletes are thinking about and even talking about and experiencing mental health right now,” said Bob Harmison, president-elect of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology and a professor of sport psychology at James Madison University. If a coach’s style clashes with what athletes want, Harmison said, “that’s when it becomes really challenging.”
Jackson’s culture shock was magnified when he moved from Texas — where Friday night lights are a societal obsession — to a European league in which players are paid but most consider football a part-time gig outside their main profession.
Back home, Jackson would often push teenage players with punishment like long-distance running or extra up-down drills. He learned that he could not be as harsh with his adult German players — and that he hadn’t needed to be so firm during all those years in Texas, either.
Now, he asks more questions and tries to get more input from his players — and is encouraging his peers back in the United States to do the same with their younger teams.
The new approach, he said, helped Potsdam shoot to the top spot in the league’s northern division with an undefeated regular-season record. They play the Straubing Spiders in the first round of the G.F.L. playoffs on Saturday.
“I have to have some discretion,” Jackson said. “If I want to coach like I did in Texas, I need to go back to Texas.”
‘Demand and Confront’
Jackson said he had always coached by demanding excellence from his players — loudly.
“No one would describe me as laid back,” he said.
During a 30-year career in Texas, he earned a reputation for transforming struggling programs. In 2010, for example, he was hired to coach at Poteet High School in Mesquite, a school east of Dallas that had won just one game the season before. In his first year, he raised the school’s record to 12-3 and took it to the state championship semifinals.
But he strove to be more than a taskmaster. He wrote two books on coaching and team building. He developed a nationwide network of high school and college coaches that he consults with regularly. He teaches other coaches how to run a hurry-up offense and how to incorporate character building into their teaching.
But during the coronavirus pandemic, Jackson began looking for a change. Without any expectations, he uploaded his résumé to a European football recruiting website. He had never left the United States before. He had never taken a train to work, like he would have to in Europe. He did not speak languages other than English.
Four days later, he got a call from Potsdam. He took the job.
Most of the G.F.L.’s European players learn football by watching YouTube clinics and N.F.L. games. Players in their late 20s and 30s are recruited from all over the continent and with varying levels of skill and experience.
Americans are allowed to play, but only two may be on the field at a time. They wear big A’s on their helmets so the referees can spot them easily.
Blending this hodgepodge of cultures and backgrounds can be a challenge in the ultimate team sport.
Michael Vogt, the Royals’ head coach, said he hired Jackson primarily because of his team-building experience in Texas.
“For him, it’s not about him. It’s about the team first,” Vogt said. “To get this group together and function together is probably the most important stuff. He found a way to get this going right from the get-go.”
Chris Helbig, the team’s American quarterback, said players had needed to adjust to Jackson’s intense style, and Jackson had needed to learn a new approach to coaching.
“He’s changed some of his philosophy in the sense of, he can be a little more hands off and give us a little more responsibility with things,” Helbig said.
In Texas, Jackson said, his strategy was to “demand and confront.” He would demand that players show up to every practice and confront them when they failed to do so.
His German players have families and jobs that take up more time. He realized that he couldn’t punish them for prioritizing those things.
“Coaching high school football players in Texas is like being a manager of a business 30 years ago,” Jackson said. “Coaching in Europe — it’s the modern employee now.”
Jackson accepts that but doesn’t always like it.
“It’s hard for him to adjust, that people can’t always come to practice,” said Yasir Raji, a German offensive lineman on the Royals. He said he sensed that Jackson still got angry about it.
“He wants people to sacrifice,” Raji said.
‘I’ve Got to Be a Better Coach’
Each week, Jackson organizes virtual meetings with his network of consulting clients, coaches from all over the United States. Many are head coaches or offensive coordinators at high schools. Some are lower-division college coaches.
Halfway through the German football season, he told the coaches what he learned so far — specifically, his biggest mistakes.
“I’ve made a bunch,” he said.
He talked about that first workout and how he learned to ease his players into the routine of regular, intense practices. How he’s using more positive reinforcement, even when players miss practice.
“I think I’m going to struggle here with that with my kids,” said Jason Roper, a high school coach in Illinois. “Did you just push them? How’d you get them in shape?”
Jackson said he did push his players but also started adding breaks to let them recover.
“I’m very much ready to give way more mental breaks,” Jackson said. “It’s just different. I wasn’t ready for the mind-set. I just wasn’t ready for it.”
He said he could not rely on adult European players to know as much about football as his Texan teenagers. Some of his guys, he said, have played for only a few years.
“It’s just like our 9th graders,” said Grady Baggett, a high school coach in South Carolina. “They haven’t played that much. They’re not experts.”
“Europeans are good players, but they just haven’t played enough,” Jackson said. “I’ve got to be a better coach.”
Getting the Players Involved
At a Royals practice on a hot day this summer, Jackson pushed the players to move more quickly, a requirement of the hurry-up offense he has brought to the team. He shouted and gestured, pointing out mistakes and instructing the players how to play better and faster.
When one player seemed to struggle with a drill, Jackson pulled him aside for a few words of support.
“If something physically doesn’t work, you have to say so,” he told the player. “Then, we can change something.”
As the practice wound down, players started making mental mistakes, and Jackson realized he needed to make a change. So, he put the workout in the players’ hands and asked how they would like to prepare for their next opponent.
Jackson said he was collaborating with players more than he used to. He’s consulting with them on what plays to run and asking them to do scouting work before games so they can plan strategy with him. He’s mentoring some players, including Helbig, the quarterback, who wants to be a coach someday.
“One of the best things I’ve done over here is rely on my players more,” Jackson said.
Jackson’s Royals have smashed the G.F.L.’s record for highest-scoring team, averaging 51.4 points a game. Only the fourth G.F.L. team since 1999 to go undefeated, the Royals are hoping to go all the way to the German Bowl championship game in October.
“There’s no doubt it has worked out so far,” said Vogt, the head coach. “He does stuff to perfection.”
Jackson said he would not return to Potsdam next season but was excited to go back to Texas high school football. When he does, he said, he’ll be a different kind of coach.
Paula Haase contributed reporting from Potsdam, Germany.