I feel so lucky to do what I do everyday. I get to work with motivated, hard working young people, specifically the quarterbacks, and help them achieve their goals on the field and in life. I am one of the lucky few who gets to truly enjoy his or her career every single day.
Over the last two years or so there has been one consistent battle that I’ve had to fight: de-programming kids from the “instagram era” of quarterback coaching. Obviously we have an instagram account, and we try to share our information, promote our guys, create some fun content, etc. But realistically, social media and instagram have been able to destroy so many quarterbacks’ mechanics and fundamentals, as well as their perspectives on the game. Here’s what I mean:
1 - Anyone is allowed to make an instagram account, meaning anyone can call themselves “QB Master Coach” or whatever they come up with, regardless of their background or credibility. In fact, the credibility of social media accounts is based on how good their posts look, not the content of what they are saying or doing. With that in mind, information has become a wild-wild west of some good tidbits, but mostly bad coaching.
2 - Highlights look cool! I like seeing highlights too. But, so many kids (and young men) are basing their fundamentals on highlight reels instead of sustainable game tape. If all you watch is Pat Mahomes and Josh Allen making unbelievable highlight reel, off-platform, sidearm throws, then you might reason that those motions are the most important to learn. But realistically, that is a horrible starting point for mechanics. Equally important, that’s also a bad way to approach playing the game. Making consistent, on-schedule throws doesn’t seem “cool” anymore, so very few kids try to do it, and they undervalue the essentials, while overvaluing the crazy play.
3 - Quarterback coaching, like any other field, goes through fads, periods where something is the “modern” way of coaching, only to see that technique fall by the wayside as years go by after seeing the side effects. Decades ago, quarterbacks were taught to hold the ball by their ear and point to the target. Twenty years ago, they were teaching guys to drive their lead elbow down. Perhaps fifteen years ago, it was common to hold the football “on the shelf.” All of these things we now look at with humoristic disdain, knowing they were fads better left behind as they didn’t really represent the best method of playing the position. That same thing is happening now, with the no-stride, leave the back-foot-back, drop the arm angle style of throwing. However, the mouthpiece for that current fad is so amplified because of social media. I have had countless quarterbacks start with me over the last 3 years that have come in with elbow pain, and the common thread amongst them is a single, well-followed instagram page that teaches a no-stride, side-arm motion.
So, when I look at the current state of quarterback coaching, I love the energy and publicity that quarterback coaching is able to generate, but I wish the science and common sense would come with it.
It makes sense that we look to copy the best. It is logical that kids want to look like their favorite players on TV. It stands to reason that the athletes who play at the highest levels make the best models. But, is this really the case?
The answer, from what I can tell, is yes and no. Yes, NFL quarterbacks are the best models, as they are the best players in the game. But no, simply copying an NFL quarterback is not the best method of improvement. There are a few issues with copying guys at the top of the game:
WIth those things stated, what I’ve seen from young quarterbacks who are being told to copy what they see on TV are guys who lack an understanding of timing and spacing, and guys who try to make too many highlight reel throws. Unfortunately, when you base your theory of the position on highlight reels, rather than fundamentals, that’s the end result.
One of the more frustrating things about this thought process is when we consider coaches who use the pros as their model or better yet, scapegoats, for teaching things that are ill advised shortcuts to the end product, without teaching the basics, or worse yet, simply wrong. I see it all the time on instagram - coaches preaching something ridiculous about mechanics, using a pro model, generally on an exceedingly small sample size and out of context.
In the end, the conclusion is fairly simple - the guys on TV are great, but young quarterbacks would be best served working on fundamentals first, and using the NFL models only when context and skills align with what needs to be learned.
With social media becoming one of the most common places for young QBs to find tips and drills on throwing mechanics, I thought I’d address one common piece of poor coaching I see online a lot - leaving the back foot back after the throw.
Generally, we’ll teach putting the right foot (for a righty) with the toe down level with the left foot, which allows the right foot to pivot and the back hip to follow through (picture 1).
In simplest terms, after a segment of the body has stopped, and the following segment accelerates past, the original segment can and should begin moving again. There’s a great example of this in golfers, specifically Rory McIlroy and Jason Day for our video - through impact, they stop their hips, allowing the shoulders to pass, then the club head, etc. You’ll notice that after that momentary stop, they begin moving again.
Also notice that their hips stop just after impact, not before. This should also be the case with our release - our hips should stop just after the release, then continue after the arm/shoulders have slung past. Acceleration is key - we want to be accelerating through the release. If we have already released all our kinetic energy, we lose that acceleration before we release the football. Note that the formula for Force is mass x acceleration, not velocity. If we want to impart the most force on the ball, we should be accelerating through the release, meaning our terminal velocity should be slightly after the release, meaning our hips should stop right after the release, not before (see: golf).
Now golf, baseball, and other strike sports (sports where we use a bat, club, or something similar to hit a ball) have parallels to throwing, but they are limited because of the extra lever. Notice we were talking about hip movement, not necessarily foot placement. And, in golf and baseball, we leave the back foot back. While the hip action of all rotational sports translates across sports in fairly global terms, the foot placement is different due to that extra lever. In sports where there is a lever, the back foot stays back, i.e. baseball, golf. However, in all throwing sports, where our arm is the lever, the back foot will follow through. We see this across all throwing sports - baseball pitchers, javelin throwers, shotputters, etc.
In all cases, they go through the same kinetic sequence, ultimately slowing or stopping one segment so the next can accelerate past it (even the shotput one, if you slow it down and watch from the front angle). But, in all cases, they have to return to rotating their hips and by proxy, moving their back foot.
The reason a sport with a bat or club can leave their back foot back and still regain rotation after the moment of slingshotting a segment past the leading segment is because of the lever. The arms don’t have to get as far out in front of the body because they are holding onto the bat or club, which actually forces the athlete to position their weight further back, limiting the need of the back foot to move forward. This specific skill doesn’t translate to quarterback play because obviously, we don’t have a bat, and our arm and weight need to continue forwards more.
The phrase I hear that frustrates me is “rotational” throwing. Yes, I believe in rotation. I teach it everyday. But rotation doesn’t mean we don’t want to create any linear forces, i.e. movement toward the target. Both rotational forces and linear forces apply to our throws, and teaching a quarterback not to move their back foot to create rotation is simply wrong - you can move your back foot forward, and still create rotation. In fact, every other throwing sport does exactly that. Leaving your back foot back simply loses linear forces, narrows your arc towards the release, and stops your body from rotating after the release like it’s supposed to.
So yes, I teach a rotational throwing motion, just like every coach out there. Literally every single coach knows that rotation is an important, crucial, power producing, essential component of throwing. That's like a college physics professor saying he understands algebra. What's more important is knowing how rotation interplays with the other variables at play.
Creating a consistent, accurate, and powerful throwing motion in a quarterback is not an easy task. In fact, it's one of the most difficult things to do in sports. With an unlimited number of moving pieces and different approaches, it is as dynamic and elusive a skill set as we can find. That said, we turn on the TV every day to see guys play the position who have seemingly mastered their mechanics, from the NFL on Sundays, to College on Saturdays, even to big combines and showcases of the best high school players. So the question is then, how do these players create a consistent, accurate, and powerful throwing motion?
One might say that they practice in highly structured settings, working tirelessly to achieve specific positions in their motions and nailing down all the little details. Others might argue that naturally gifted players take in a large number of free flowing repetitions, working on their motion more like an art than a science, gradually crafting their fluid motion into something they can use in real time, game settings. Let's examine examples of each.
When it comes to structure, few schools of development are more structured than the "Suzuki" method of teaching violin. Students are taught using meticulous cues, and are even prevented from playing an actual note before their bow movements are perfected, practicing instead on tissue boxes and shoeboxes. I can remember my own sister, who was taught violin by a Suzuki instructor, sliding her bow up and down a tissue box, with a slot cut in it for the bow and covered in tape to keep it together. The same approach of disciplined attention to detail is maintained throughout the learning process, and the results have been phenomenal, creating some of the world's greatest players. If Suzuki is to be trusted, then one would say that disciplined structure creates the best skill sets.
On the other hand, Brazilian soccer presents a different, more free flowing model. Their young players all partake in Futsal, a small area, condensed version of soccer, with perhaps five to six players per side. A much faster paced game, with an increased number of ball touches per player, Futsal has been identified as one of the processes through which Brazil has been a dominant world power in soccer for decades. Their players are masters of fluidity, footwork, and movement, knifing through opponents like water cuts through a creek, filling voids and constantly pressuring defenses into mistakes. If we take Futsal as our lead, then we'd say that free flowing, fluid reps with less structure and more creativity is the best way to create a usable skill set.
Ultimately, both Suzuki and Futsal have created the world's best in their respective fields, with vastly different approaches. So which one applies to quarterback play? To answer with one or the other would be incorrect. Ultimately, both Suzuki and Futsal do the same thing: they facilitate purposeful practice repetitions. Any skill set is simply a product of meaningful practice, whatever medium that may come through. A coach's job is to create an environment where the quarterback can take highly focused, intentional practice repetitions developing the skill (correctly). The thing to remember is that practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanent. We must facilitate reps that focus on the quarterback doing something consistently correctly, give them appropriate and immediate feedback, and stay focused on improving the process, whether we are in structured or free-flowing settings.
The term "quarterback coach" is a vague, non-standardized term. Anyone can call themselves a quarterback coach, regardless of how much they know or don't know about the position and the body. One thing that frustrates me is when someone advertises themselves as a quarterback coach and really only facilitates reps, which isn't really coaching. It happens all the time - a kid goes to a clinic, is put through a series of cone drills and throws a bunch of routes, and leaves. He's told that 's how he improves, how he gets better. All that's really happening, though, is reps. This isn't good coaching.
Good, quality repetitions are extremely important for any skill to be perfected. In order for reps to be quality reps, though, a player must be actively working on something, and that something must be the right thing. We'll call this purposeful practice. Let's take a kid who has an error when he throws off a five step drop. He goes to a clinic, the coach says that they are going to work on five step drops. The kid, knowing he struggles in that phase of his game, is pleased to know he's going to get reps at something he struggles with. The coach sets up the receivers and quarterbacks, gives them various routes to throw off the five step drop, and notes when the ball was too high, too low, when the routes weren't perfect, etc. An hour later, the clinic is over, and the quarterback has gotten plenty of reps on throwing off of a five step drop. Is he better?
Chances are, probably not. All that happened was that the quarterback practiced doing it wrong. Most coaches don't actually break down and fix the skill, they don't take the time (or have the knowledge) to break down the drop into its component pieces, refine the small things that add up to performance, and fix them. So many coaches just throw reps at players instead of actually coaching them. If the kid had too big of a back step, making it hard to transition into the throw, he still has that issue, all he did was do it wrong. This wasn't purposeful practice, it was just practice. And, practice doesn't make perfect, practice make permanent. Perfect practice makes perfect.
Real coaching occurs when instead of just practicing a skill, we identify specific parts of the skill, consciously work on them to create motor program understanding, then look to apply those changes in various settings. At that point, we can create positive, quality repetitions that serve a specific purpose, we can engage in purposeful practice. And, changes are specific to each quarterback. Some need to work on how the feet transition from dropping to create forward movement; others need to fix how their hips initiate the throwing motion; others have issues with arm positions. No two quarterbacks are exactly the same, so there has to be some level of individualization when it comes to creating change and perfecting fundamentals.
This is what all quarterback coaches should be doing. In my experience, most don't. They throw reps at as many kids as possible, and rely on pre-existing talent and flash instead of substance. Sometimes, working on those small changes can be hard, mundane, and require tedious hours. Most quarterback coaches aren't willing to go through that, either because they don't know how to do it or because they are scared they are going to lose the client's interest. The truly good quarterback coaches will force their quarterbacks to go through those tedious hours because they know it's in the best interest of the quarterback's future.
Don't settle for reps, find someone that facilitates purposeful practice.
One of the greatest ironies in the modern age of high school's throwing the ball 50 times a game is that quarterbacks are less prepared for the college game than ever before. In speaking with a college coach yesterday, he mentioned to me that many of his quarterbacks take at least 2-3 years before they are even fundamentally ready to play. Unfortunately, most are pressed into action before that.
Part of the reason for the lack of preparedness are off-season 7 on 7s. While these can be a great tool for quarterbacks to learn progressions, develop timing, work on fundamentals, etc, if they aren't used properly they tend to lead to lazy quarterback play and bad habits. If you go to these 7 on 7s with the intention of getting better, looking at the process, and working on progressions and timing, you'll most likely get better. However, a lot of these teams play at 7 on 7s with the mindset of winning over progressing, and since there's no pass rush the QBs tend to just stand in the pocket and wait for long developing routes and force the defense to cover for a full 4 seconds (or whatever the sack count is, if there is one). When a team let's their passing game go that direction, we lose the art of timing and throwing in rhythm.
Throwing in rhythm, meaning throwing to our first read right when we hit the back step of our drop, is a crucial skill for a quarterback to have and an important part of the drop back passing game. When we throw in rhythm, we normally throw before the receiver makes his break, making it difficult to defend when done right, and we put less pressure on the offensive line to protect for extended periods. Knowing and setting up the in rhythm read also sets up all the progressions that come after it. However, most commonly, quarterbacks drop back, and either bounce or pat their feet as if standing on hot coals, and try to scan the field. This is the in vogue, but lazy, way of running a drop back passing game, looking at windows in a particular order, but with no sense of timing. And, when we allow ourselves to fall back into this, we really on having better athletes than everyone else, especially up front where the line would need to protect for a much longer time.
So, right now, at the beginning of your off-season, begin working on throwing the ball in rhythm, and make a conscious effort as you work on your footwork to make sure each step counts; we shouldn't be bouncing or running our feet because it looks "legit," we should be matching our footwork to our reads, starting with your in rhythm routes. Don't fall into bad habits at 7 on 7s.
Nearly every week, I have kids coming in asking about a piece of advice they received from another coach, adult, friend, or even YouTube video. They want to know if it's good advice or good coaching. In some cases they have received good advice. In others, not so much. This got me thinking, what are the qualifications that someone must have to give advice? Not just with quarterbacks, but in any field?
This is fairly difficult to quantify as we don't have strict regulations like say, the medical field. There isn't any one certification that deems a person fit to coach. We'll have to take a more qualitative approach, and look at the questions you should ask yourself before taking advice from someone.
1 - Can they perform the skill themselves?
Would you ever take a golf lesson from someone who could barely swing a golf club? How about a tennis lesson from an instructor who couldn't hit a forehand? It seems fitting the first question is whether or not they can perform the skill themselves. This should also include people who at least used to be able to do the skill but can't anymore due to age or injury or lack of current practice. Additionally, being able to perform the skill isn't enough of a qualification by itself either - I've seen plenty of people who could do certain skills well but were terrible at teaching others to do the same.
2 - Do they have a background in teaching the skill?
One of the toughest things for me to watch is a former player at a position besides quarterback, who happens to be able to throw, try to coach a quarterback. As noted in question 1, being able to perform the skill is just a starting point, but it's not the only pre-requisite. Just because that receiver who graduated a few years ago can throw a football doesn't mean he can coach a quarterback. And, this goes for all skills, not just quarterback play. Just because your buddy in the gym can do a hanging power clean and look fairly good doing it doesn't mean he should be teaching you. That's actually how a lot of high school weight room injuries happen.
3 - Is the instructor responsible and invested?
Coaching is a responsibility - when we begin instructing an athlete on how to play, or throw, or lift, we take their health and future into our own hands. Many coaches take that responsibility very seriously, thinking hard about their lesson plans to try to determine the best course of action for the athlete. Other coaches just throw out pieces of advice or use their pupils as Guinea pigs, with little concern to consequences. If your buddy down the street tells you to throw a football with a bad grip and low arm slot, what are the consequences for him if it leads to injury or poor performance for you? In all likelihood, he faces no consequences. However, a true professional, a responsible and invested coach, will rise and fall with you, and stick around to see how you perform, and think much more thoroughly about the coaching he or she is giving you.
4 - Is there a system or comprehensive approach to the skill?
Anyone can offer a "tip," but real coaches have more than that. Each and every player is different, and where they are along their developmental curve differs just the same. Good coaches have a complete approach that encompasses the entire skill. For quarterbacks, it could start with a stance that matches the drop footwork which matches the throwing mechanics which matches the reads and progressions which matches the type of offense the team runs. It's a complete system of playing the position. A good coach will have all of the pieces in mind when giving advice and developing a player. In cases of poor coaching, the coach will just give random pieces of advice that don't really align with a complete system, just "tips," not true coaching. Tips can often do more harm than good. There's more than one way to skin a cat, but if you try them all at once all you get is a bloody mess. Your coach needs to have one method in mind.
These are just a few thoughts as you receive advice. Many people are well intentioned but not necessarily qualified coaches. These starting questions go for more than just quarterbacks as well - it goes for strength training, for other positions, for academic counsel, for college decisions, and really anything. Surrounding yourself with the right people can go a long way for making your life as successful as possible.
One of my favorite authors is Jim Collins, and among his best books is Good to Great, a piece written with the idea of being more than just good, and separating mediocre performance from those who climb to the top of their market or field. It's a very well written book, and worth a read if you have some free time and an interest.
Collins tends to break down business ideas into metaphors, one of which is his "flywheel." The flywheel is meant to represent how a company breaks through into a success. Imagine an enormous steel wheel, set on a pair of parallel bars on which it rolls along, sort of like a railway. Now imagine there is one guy, pushing this huge flywheel, which weighs thousands of pounds. His first few pushes don't even budge the wheel; the next few make it quiver. One of his buddies comes over and begins pushing too, and the wheel begins to teeter a bit. After some more effort, it begins to roll slowly down the rail. As time goes on, the group of folks pushing the flywheel grows, all pushing tirelessly, until it rolls at a good pace. As it gets faster, more people notice and begin to help until the wheel is humming down the rail. Someone, miles down the rail, sees it coming his way and exclaims how impressive it is, and comments that the people pushing it have had a massive breakthrough.
Here's the point - it wasn't a massive breakthrough. The speed of the huge wheel was the outcome of push after push after push, tireless consistent effort. Lots of the time, people on the outside see a split second of success, that in reality was the product of tons of hard work. This is the way it is in football as well - take Odell Beckham for instance. Prior to his well publicized and hugely impressive one handed catch on Monday Night Football, prior to his top draft status at the NFL draft that year, he was hardly a household name. Sure, those who follow college football with some regularity knew who he was, but he was nowhere close to the billboard icon he is now, as he lights up New York City and graces the cover of countless magazines and commercials. No, prior to that April, he was only known within knowledgeable football circles. What really happened was no breakthrough, no meteoric rise; what really happened is that from a young age, Odell Beckham was active, worked hard, played lots of sports, worked on his craft, and put in hours upon hours towards being a great football player. What the public exclaimed was "what a breakthrough!" What really happened was years of effort that only got noticed once it reached that stage.
The hardest part of that journey to greatness is continuing to push the flywheel when no one is watching, no one is exclaiming how amazing it is, how fast it's moving. But, it's those that keep pushing that eventually achieve greatness. Make sure everyday, you push the flywheel. Make sure you tell your teammates to do it. Make sure you find consistency in purpose, an inner drive to keep pushing even if no one else is looking. If you keep pushing long enough, they'll all be looking.
There are a lot of successful quarterbacks out there, but that doesn't mean they all have sound mechanics. One of the first things I do when I get a quarterback who has had success is figure out if he's successful due to his good mechanics, or successful in spite of bad mechanics.
There are obvious examples in the NFL. Johnny Manziel has been a hot name the last few years, but many projected his success wouldn't translate to the NFL, in part because of his mentality, but also in part because his fundamentals simply didn't show a quarterback who could be consistently accurate or efficient. He had a great deal of success at Texas A&M, but that was in spite of poor footwork, bad reads, and scattered throwing mechanics.
On the other hand, you find quarterbacks like Andrew Luck, who has impeccable mechanics. He throws from a solid base whenever he can, he matches his footwork to his reads, is able to throw in rhythm and deeper into progressions, and has solid throwing mechanics. Yes, it is important to be able to be effective when the play breaks down, which is one of Manziel's strengths, and Luck also does that well.
On the high school level, some quarterbacks are still so much more athletic and gifted than their teammates and opponents that they are still able to be effective, despite poor fundamentals. They end up on the Johnny Manziel route to success. If that is coupled with a poor attitude, ego, or arrogance, they can be some of the hardest players to coach. It's difficult to tell a kid who throws 20 touchdowns and only a few interceptions on a winning team that he's doing things wrong, or that his footwork needs to be corrected, or that his throwing motion needs to be tweaked. The player who won't listen to coaching is setting himself up for a fall - he's doing well playing against lesser competition and getting away with fixable mistakes, and is choosing to ignore advice. When the competition catches up with him at higher levels, he won't be able to take the coaching to improve and won't be gifted enough to succeed on talent alone. That's a dangerous combination.
Fortunately, I have found this player to be in the minority. Most every quarterback I have worked with has been willing to take coaching, regardless of previous success (or lack thereof). A strong combination of humility and hunger for improvement make for the most coachable players, and therefore they make the biggest strides.
The example I use with the kids about success as relates to mechanics comes from basketball. If a player shoots granny-style, from between his legs, and he can make 6/10 shots that way, does that mean he is doing it right? And, if when he tries to shoot with proper form he makes only 4/10, does that mean he should revert back to his old shot?
Obviously the answer I'm looking for is no, he should continue to work on doing things the right way, because at some point poor technique is going to catch up with him. Shooting granny style is limited his potential, and taking a step back and learning the correct way will lead to him taking multiple steps forwards in due time. We call this process over product. When we focus on the process, on doing things the right way, we make more improvement in the long run than focusing on the product, or in this case how many shots go in. And, in nearly every case, when you work on the process, the product will take care of itself.
So the end point of this post is try not to tie your ability only to results. Look at mechanics and fundamentals objectively, and seek out ways to improve and do things better. It might be harder at first, but in the long run your hard work on the process will pay off.
Congratulations to Tom Smith, who will be heading to St. Anselm's this fall to play quarterback. He first joined us four years ago, and since then has been a consistent worker and dedicated himself to the craft. We're looking forward to seeing him dominate at St. Anselm's!
Quarterback Coach Alex Drayson will put up articles, thoughts, and reviews to help you stimulate your journey towards being the best QB you can be