Relentless Competitors

Editor’s Note: Third-year head coach Doug Marrone praised his team for their perseverance and resiliency in SU’s 36-29 overtime victory against Wake Forest in the season-opener on Thursday night. Preparation for a win like this begins in the off-season. The Orange football team participated in a unique off-season workout regiment. The following story is from the 2011 Syracuse University Football Yearbook. For more on this story and a comprehensive look at this year’s team, pick up a copy of the yearbook at this week’s football game.

Frisbee.  Dodge ball.  Tag.  We’ve all played these games on family picnics, in camp, in the backyard or in physical education class.

Members of the Syracuse University football team participated in these activities, too, but it was all in the name of competition: developing and sustaining a competitive edge that carries over to the football field as well as other walks of life.

Following the highly successful 2010 season, which featured an 8-5 record and a triumphant trip to the inaugural Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium, Syracuse coaches instituted a series of events based on a chapter in the SU Football Success Manual called “Relentless Competitors.”

In introducing the chapter, Head Coach Doug Marrone wrote, in part:

“…Great athletes are a dime a dozen. They are on every corner of every neighborhood, but true competitors, true champions are rare!…Whether a team wins is not determined by superior athletic ability. Winning depends completely on the character of each man on your football team….Is your body, your heart, your mind going to show up? Are you ready to compete today? There are lots of great athletes. The question is:  Are you a great competitor? Great competitors make champions! To be a great competitor you have to find a way to show up each week, with your heart, body and mind…For a great competitor, there is no break, there is no room to let up physically, emotionally or mentally…”

“We think competition is important,” said Bob Brotzki, assistant athletics director for football player development. “It’s healthy, not only for football and being on the football field, but competition is healthy in the classroom and helps prepare you for competing in life. There are great lessons to learn.”

Brotzki said he and Marrone had talked off and on about the competitive process and how to instill it throughout the team.

“The whole concept of being competitive, I think, stems from the fact that kids nowadays seem to get a trophy just for participating in a sport. We’re not about that here. Not everybody here gets a trophy. We’re about winning and winning should be the goal although there are times that all of us come up short. Our players should all aspire to greatness, to try hard, to compete, and to let the chips fall where they may. Sometimes I think society looks at competition in a negative way, but we don’t look at it that way at all. We want our kids to compete on the football field, in the classroom and in life. Whatever we can do to help, we will do. We want our kids to understand that competition is a good thing. Competition is what drives us.”

He added: “There’s no sense of entitlement when you get here and when you leave here for the real world. No one’s going to care that you played football for Syracuse University. You have to be able to compete in the business world, in whatever walk of life you choose.”

In an effort to “accelerate” the competitive process, Marrone and his staff, including graduate assistants, developed “Relentless Competitors” events that were introduced during one of the team’s life skills sessions held in February.

“During the life skills sessions we bring the kids in and talk about non-football topics, such as gender violence and personal finance,” Brotzki said. “For one of the sessions, (defensive coordinator) coach (Scott) Shafer spoke for 30 minutes on the importance of competition, on the field, off the field, in academics, in life. We dismissed everybody except for eight seniors who had been prepped in advance and were selected to serve as group captains.”

The captains—Torrey Ball, Nick Provo, Justin Pugh, Antwon Bailey, Mikhail Marinovich, Chandler Jones, Olando Fisher and Michael Hay–conducted a draft of fellow teammates to fill up teams that would compete in four 45-minute competitive events to be held weekly.

Competition wasn’t the only attribute being measured.

“Accountability was another element put into play,” Brotzki said. “If you didn’t do the right thing that week, such as missing a class, you were out of the competition for the week. What that did is you were letting your team down, you were letting your 8-man team down so your team was now competing short-handed.”

Offending players ran track while their teammates participated.

“Needless to say it was pretty competitive,” Brotzki said.

Results were posted weekly. The leading team had a medal next to its name. The last-place team had something less flattering.

“This isn’t kindergarten,” Brotzki said. “If your team is in last place we wanted to make sure everyone knew you were in last place. The message was ‘If you don’t like it get out of last place.’”

Competitions were held in Ultimate Frisbee; dodge ball; “shark tank,” a form of team tag introduced by an SU grad assistant who attended Stanford; and a county fair event that featured a series of multiple stations where teams were given 2 ½ minutes to do certain tasks including medicine ball throw, push-ups, tire flip, and more. The competitions were designed largely by grad assistants, who, as Brotzki said, are “more in tune with the young kids” on the roster.

These weren’t your run-of-the-mill camp variety or backyard versions.  As Brotzki described it, events became “very heated.”

“Dodge ball was pretty cutthroat,” he described. “In Ultimate Frisbee the minute team A scored, team B had to sprint off the field and team C ran on. As soon as team A’s participants were in the end zone they were heading back the other way. It kept everything moving. From a cardiovascular standpoint it was hard. You could win only so many in a row because you’d be out of breath. It was a fast pace. It’s a lot like football. You march down the field by throwing a Frisbee and catching it.”

To make the day of “shark tank” more intense, the top two teams for the day competed in a tug of war for the day’s championship

To determine the top dog on “county fair” day, the top two teams competed in dodge ball—not out in the open but inside a batting cage normally used for softball.

“It was absolute mayhem,” Brotzki said. “The whole team was hooting and hollering. The emotion really showed. The kids got excited. It was good to see.”

Brotzki said it was important to choose games that were “competitive, aggressive and had a lot of movement” but it was just as important for things to be safe.

“We wanted to make sure that it was great competition, that it was fun and that the kids were getting a good workout but we also had to be real careful because we have a lot of big bodies out there and we didn’t want anything to get out of hand,” he said. As an extra precaution, plenty of officials were called on.

Brotzki acknowledged there were a “few skeptics” at first but that in the end “everybody was into it” as the competitive juices got flowing.

“The minute you roll a ball out there, make it into some sort of competition and have the kids play for something, the intensity level rises up,” he said. “When you turn it into a game, a contest, all of a sudden the exertion level goes up to here (pointing) and they’re having fun and they don’t even realize you’ve taken it to the next level.”

With the exhausting and challenging number of hours a Division 1 football player has to put into the sport, academics and community work, it’s critical to make at least some of the commitment fun.  All work and no play can lead to a feeling of drudgery.

“We have to make some of it fun,” Brotzki said. “I don’t think the public realizes the commitment these young men have. We cut them no slack on campus. They have to attend every class, some are involved in study table, they have tutors, appointments, weight lifting, running, community service, practice, meetings. It’s a full load. It’s a heck of a lot easier to accomplish things if it’s fun, not drudgery.”

Coach Marrone is a disciplinarian and viewed as a no-nonsense leader, but he understands the importance of balance.

“Fun and accountability aren’t mutually exclusive. Kids who were here when we came on would say it’s harder but it’s also more fun and they like their teammates and coaches more,” Marrone said. “They’re in it together. Things like Relentless Competitors bring them together and give them a sense of accomplishment.”

Trying new things also lends an air of freshness to the program that keeps the kids going year-in and year-out.

“The message is the same every year but it’s important to change things out. We’ve gone from bad to good, now we need to go from good to great. We can’t keep on doing the same things,” Brotzki said. “This was something new that we think turned out very well, even better than we had anticipated. The kids had a ball. They were out there running around, doing things at a high level. These kids are competitive. You give them a little something to play for they take off with it. It was competitive, it was hard, but the kids had a lot of fun.”

Relentless Competitors. Just one more element to building a sustainable, winning program.

“Whether you’re playing tiddlywinks, Go Fish, whatever, when the game is on the line these kids are going to be ready to play. That’s what I took out of it. These kids are super competitors in every facet of life and this was one small thing,” Brotzki said.

And when SU pulls out a hard-earned victory during the 2011 season they’ll have Frisbee and dodge ball to thank.

Story by Mark Frank.

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