5 strategies for small schools to succeed against bigger programs
In 2015, a statewide reclassification in Georgia forced us to either compete in class A or to make the leap to AAA. With an upper school enrollment of nearly 450 students, we would compete against schools with nearly 1,100 kids.
For many reasons, including the desire to challenge our students, we made the decision to compete in the AAA class for the 2016-17 school year. There were challenges along the way, but our teams fared well. We competed for five state championships (winning one), we made the state playoffs in nearly every sport, and we finished the year ranked fourth in the state’s Director’s Cup race.
Here are five strategies we employed to compete with and beat the bigger schools.
1. Strategic strength training.
It’s impossible to quantify the value of a quality strength and conditioning staff. We began by investing in personnel, hiring two part-time strength and conditioning coaches to bring our staff to three. We then tracked the number of individual athletes and teams that we were able to accommodate daily. We challenged ourselves to reimagine what was possible on a daily, weekly and seasonal basis.
We made equipment and layout adjustments with an eye toward dual-gender workouts, efficiency and high volume. Our strength and conditioning staff devised a staggering method so it could schedule teams in 15-minute increments, progressing through a routine of warmups, functional movements, heavy lifting, and ending with flexibility and recovery. Our strength and conditioning staff met regularly with coaches to scrutinize practice and game schedules, allowing them to identify 45-minute windows that would work for each team while maintaining the flow of practice.
By the end of the year, we were able to increase our daily volume by nearly 40 percent. More importantly, our two-and three-sport athletes did not lose gains made during the summer or offseason while competing.
2. Trim the fat.
We have always placed a premium on the value of sub-varsity teams, so cutting junior varsity and ninth-grade programs seems counterintuitive. For us, it was similar to the concept of pruning to avoid watering down the talent pool while bolstering the numbers for varsity rosters.
We looked at three factors. First, we examined sports in which we relied on a high percentage of varsity-JV swing players. We then looked at the number of players needed to compete (e.g. 11 for football, five for basketball, 11 for soccer). Finally, we considered historical yield — for example, how many JV soccer players eventually advance to varsity. We found that we were fielding some of our JV teams for the sake of fielding JV teams, and it was to the detriment of the program.
We decided to eliminate three JV teams from the program. Our JV offerings may change each year based on these factors.
3. Know your personnel.
What happens to the players who don’t have an opportunity to compete as a result of JV program changes? Before cutting programs, we discussed individual student-athletes in our program with an eye toward development and performance. While we are not proponents of early specialization, we took inventory of student-athletes who were playing multiple sports and not making an impact in any of them. For example, a 10th-grader playing JV in three sports might be better served by focusing on two. For those students, we
took time to talk through the potential benefits of steering them to one sport or another.
It was important for me to reassure our coaches that their top performers who specialized in the past wouldn’t be snatched from their program. We focused more on redirecting “bubble kids” and contributors, while also encouraging some of our more athletic students to get involved with more than one sport. The underlying theme was that a one-size-fits-all approach was not sufficient. We had to work smarter.
4. Communicate and foster an open environment.
In the year preceding the jump to AAA, we met frequently with coaches to help foster an environment of teamwork and cooperation. Many head coaches extol the virtues of being a great teammate without ever being challenged to see themselves as a member of a team. We constantly communicated the need for our coaches to be great teammates and encourage certain players to diversify. It was equally important to highlight the benefits to their respective teams as well.
Our coaches were receptive. The head football coach canceled spring practice to encourage his players to join the lacrosse and track teams. Our head lacrosse coach collaborated with our football coach to make sure football-lacrosse crossovers didn’t fall behind in the weight room and were still able to work out for college coaches and early-summer camps. The crossover has proven to be fruitful, and this summer we’ve even seen lacrosse players joining the football team.
This doesn’t work without a student-centered priority system. This doesn’t have to be overly complicated or scientific. It’s as simple as asking a student whether they prioritize volleyball or basketball, while also polling her coaches to determine where she makes the most impact. It’s much more effective and reassuring to tell a student to choose volleyball when schedules overlap with summer basketball than to leave it to chance. This conversation helps to manage potential conflicts with summer team camps and preseason workouts, and it prevents unproductive “turf wars” amongst coaches. It also minimizes the probability of a two-sport athlete feeling the need to specialize later in their career. It’s time consuming to identify and communicate priorities, but with less than 500 students, it’s worth the investment. Every student counts.
5. Put student-athletes and families first.
Framing conversations from a student success standpoint is a skill that must be modeled from the top. We clearly stated that we were not interested in taking away opportunities. We were working to increase opportunities for success.
For example, we replaced, “Don’t waste your time with swimming” with, “You have the potential to be a starter on the varsity baseball team, but we need to advise you that swimming on the JV team from late October to early February may take away some valuable opportunities for you to be prepared to claim that role.” It’s also critical that the student and their parents are hearing this message from the swim coach, the baseball coach and the athletic director.
Troy Baker is the director of athletics and head varsity girls basketball coach at Pace Academy in Atlanta.