Come Up With a List of Stupid Questions (And Start Asking Them)

Let me tell you about one of the shortest jobs I ever had.

A while back I was hired to work in a warehouse stacked to the ceiling with boxes, and the company had a very inefficient way of counting inventory and making sure everything was in the right spot. I quickly found out that it wasn’t uncommon for employees to work six days a week to get orders filled, and all because they wasted so much time counting everything by hand. By the third day I was making a habit of asking a stupid question that got on the nerves of my boss.

“Why?”

I was asked not to come back for a fourth day.

Thankfully the coaching business is exactly the opposite. Every offseason coaches spends lots of time and money asking and answering questions on all kinds of topics. Often times however, consciously or unconsciously, we hold back from asking basic, foundational questions about the game out of a fear of looking like an amateur.

Want to be a successful coach? You first have to identify your strengths, but more importantly, your weaknesses.

The quickest way to do that is to ask “stupid” questions.

“What do you mean you don’t know that?”

People are scared to look stupid, especially out in public, but without risking a little bit of embarrassment, you may never be able to identify the gaps in your understanding of the game. If you don’t know what those are, you’d better find out, because it can be even more embarrassing if someone else figures out what you don’t know before you do.

There’s a great passage from Jon Gruden’s book Do You Love Football?! where he talks about interviewing for the QB coach position at Pitt when Paul Hackett was the head coach. This is a guy (Gruden) who had just spent an entire season in San Francisco during the glory days, when the Niners nearly won their third straight Super Bowl. He had been working for Mike Holmgren, one of the all time great teachers of the game, and no doubt understood many of the intricacies of the West Coast Offense.

Gruden talks about how Hackett told him to go up to the board and draw up a particular pass play and talk about how he would coach it up. As he began to talk about the pass routes against different coverages, Hackett stopped him before he really got going and asked him a question he wasn’t ready for.

“Talk to me about the quarterback’s footwork on this play.”

Gruden stumbled through an explanation, but the question caught him completely off guard. While he ended up getting the job, the lesson stuck with him.

He had just spent a year working around Joe Montana and Steve Young, two of the greatest to ever play the position, and now he’ll be the first to tell you that he took the fundamentals for granted. How many times do you think the mechanics of taking a snap from center, or footwork, or analyzing the quarterback’s throwing motion came up during meetings when Mike Holmgren and Joe Montana were in the room together?

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(This should also tell you something about the importance of networking and relationships. After a mediocre interview, Gruden still got the job because Hackett trusted Holmgren’s recommendation. Don’t ever make the mistake of believing that this business is all about merit, because it’s not.)

The biggest lesson to take from this is the importance of figuring out exactly what you know and don’t know. After you accomplish that, it’s up to you to fill in the gaps.

Let’s go back to Gruden for a second. Here’s a guy who could recite any play call from the West Coast Offense, but couldn’t tell his quarterback exactly how to dropback from center. That was a huge gap in his knowledge of the game, and it would’ve been an obstacle in his path to becoming a successful head coach if he had ignored it.

It doesn’t mean he was lazy, far from it. The guy worked crazy hours trying to get better, but the point is that he didn’t even know what he didn’t know, and he ended up figuring it out in the middle of a job interview when someone else pointed it out to him.

So how do you go about not only filling in the gaps in your football knowledge, but finding them in the first place? Here are three steps that should make it a little easier for you to identify where you need improvement, and then take action.

1. Start out with the simplest question of all: Why? 

This process will help you test yourself, and is the easiest way to find out exactly what you don’t know.

What scheme do you run on offense/defense, but more importantly, why? Is it because the head coach/ coordinator is comfortable with it? Is it because it fits with the personnel you have? Is it because it gives the best teams in your conference a lot of trouble?

If you can answer that, move on to the next question, starting with your position group. If you’re a receivers coach for example, how do you coach your receivers to line up in their stance before the snap? Which foot do you tell them to put forward? What do you tell them to do with their hands? Do you prefer they keep their hands at their side? Or would you rather them have their arms flexed and hands in front of their chest? Why?

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Your questions don’t necessarily have to have anything to do with what you run on your team. You may be interested in studying your toughest opponent and what they like to run. Maybe you’ve noticed some wrinkle in their game plan that doesn’t make sense to you, but you’re trying to get inside the head of the opposing coach. Start by asking why?

2. Be as specific as possible

Remember, you’re trying to put together a list of questions that will make sense when you ask them, so that the person will understand and give you an answer.

For example, even if you know almost nothing about defense, you need to be able to break your lack of knowledge about defense in general into smaller questions that are easier to answer. If you ask a vague question, you’ll get a vague answer, and you probably won’t learn a whole lot.

Like anything else, you get out of this exercise what you put into it. Figuring out what you don’t know is the hardest part of this process, but once you do that, you’re ready to move on to the next step.

3. Once you’ve got your list of questions, ask them

Now comes the easy part, you just have to find someone qualified to answer your question. The good news is that if you’re a coach on a staff, there should be at least a couple people on that staff who are qualified to answer whatever question you have.

On the other hand, you may be hesitant to approach guys who you work with every day with “stupid” questions. What then?

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Well one of the best ways to ask questions anonymously is to go online, and for football coaches, you won’t find a better place to do that than Coach Huey’s message board, which has a dedicated following of coaches from around the country (and the world) who can answer most any question you ask, and if not they’ll usually be able to point you in the direction of someone who can. If you’re not a member it’s free and easy to signup, and you can get started browsing right away.

Clinics are another great resource to ask questions, assuming you’re listening to the right speaker. Some are admittedly better than others, but the best football talk can sometimes be out in the hallways in between sessions.

Football is all about improving everyday. If you’re not working to get better, one of your opponents is, meaning you’re getting worse by default. In the never-ending task to win football games and develop young players into successful adults, why not start by working on the one person we have total control over- ourselves?


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