Washington Football Team special teams coach Nate Kaczor learned a valuable lesson early in his career about being a coach -- and not a kiosk -- when it comes to developing players.
A kiosk, one of Kaczor's mentors told him, is someone who can spit out information and memorize playbooks. A coach, on the other hand, helps players with the application and understanding of information while serving as a mentor, a friend or whatever they need.
"Don't just be a giver of information," Kaczor said. "Try to cover all the bases and elements of developing a player."
The other Washington coaches, including head coach Ron Rivera, offensive coordinator Scott Turner and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, did not use as colorful of a metaphor, but the message they gave to the coaches in attendance at the Washington Football Charitable Foundation's Virtual High School Coaches Clinic, presented by Inova Sports Medicine, was the same: be more than just a coach to players. The lessons taught need to extend beyond the sidelines, and that can have an invaluable impact on players' lives.
"One of the greatest things I feel you can do as a coach off the field is give them your time," Rivera said. "When you give them your personal time away from the field, that's special, because you don't have to do that. To me, it's being a mentor, being a friend, being someone that's there for them, to help them, because you do make that kind of an impact in a players' life."
The annual High School Coaches Clinic provides high school coaches with information on player health and safety, character development and how to build a successful program on and off the field. The event was held virtually this year, as more than 70 coaches and athletic directors, who dealt with the challenges of postponed or cancelled seasons, heard from Rivera, his coaches and a presentation from the Positive Coaching Alliance to ensure positive development for all kids through sports.
Rivera knows from experience how positively a coach can affect a player, because his own high school football coach, Carl Stephenson, provided that for him. Rivera described Stephenson as "a tremendous force" in his life; it was like having an uncle with him all the time, he said. The two stayed in touch throughout Rivera's life until Stephenson passed away in the summer of 2020.
"He has always been a source of information and a source of knowledge, a mentor" Rivera said, "but more importantly, he was like a family member. He was truly a friend."
Other coaches who influenced Rivera in his playing career included Mike Ditka, Buddy Ryan and former University of California head coach Joe Kapp. These coaches helped serve as a guide for Rivera on the football field and in life, and he told the coaches attending the Zoom meeting that "you guys can make that kind of impact as well."
There are several ways for a coach to teach their players, but Del Rio has found that no matter the method, it needs to be authentic. It is something his players have come to appreciate about him -- former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said he loved Del Rio because of his "keep it real" attitude. As a coach, he wants to be honest and explain his expectations, but he also wants to develop players, and being as authentic as possible is something he sees as a big part of his job.
"Too often, coaches will try to be something they're not, and being authentic is very important because the player can see right through you if you're not," he said.
That honesty is paramount when players come to coaches for advice about personal issues on and off the field. In Turner's experience, players come to him searching for personal advice less frequently than they do for football issues, but sometimes they will "come out of nowhere," he said, and coaches have to be ready for it.
"I tell guys all the time when they ask me for advice or they ask me about things with the offense, 'I'm gonna be honest with you. You might not always like what I'm gonna say, but I'm gonna be honest with you and tell you how I feel about whatever issues you bring to me."
But before that can happen, Turner believes players need to know their coaches care about them. That effort tends to make them want to play harder and be part of a team, and it shows them their leaders see them more than just a product on the field.
One way Turner has done this in the past would be to mix in questions about a player's life with film study. They would go over a few plays and then ask a player how his family was doing. Turner calls it "changing the channel," and it helps him get to know a player better while also making sure they learn more about the offense.
"I think keeping it interesting and switching it up on guys is what you're gonna have to do in order to really maintain their attention," Turner said.
One of the biggest messages Rivera gives to his players is to be the right kind of person. Their coaches can be the ones to help them achieve that. And if those actions start at a younger age, the effects can be felt for years to come.
"It is very important that you high school coaches understand the impact that you make," Rivera said. "The lessons you teach these young men and women are lessons that should carry throughout their lives."