It's not at all unusual for a group of high school coaches to get together for a clinic this time of year. What is out of the ordinary, however, is for a large group of coaches to come together for a day that has very little to do with football Xs and Os.
But when approximately 70 area coaches gathered at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center last week for a coaches' forum put on by the NFL, the focus was largely on off-field elements of the game and not what happens between the lines. And even the football-related material focused not on strategy, but on player safety.
Instead of learning about strategy, coaches sat through presentations on topics such as growing leaders, coaching and teaching millennials, interacting with officials and building character. The first clinic of its kind held here, Saturday's event was a big success, even in the eyes of experienced coaches with long track records of success already on their resumes.
"I got a lot out of the other speakers, it was great," said Tom Bainter, who has been the head coach at Bothell for 19 seasons. "It was very educational for me both as a teacher and a coach…. Things like, how to coach boys into men? What's our true role as a coach? It was great. I've been a head coach for 19 years now and coaching for 26, and I think you can always learn and grown, and the material allowed me to do that.
"When it's all said and done, who cares how many games you won or lost? People won't remember the scores of the games, but what were you able to do in the life of a young man? How were you able to affect him in a positive way, whether he was a starter or a backup or the best guy on the field? This even just reminded us of that."
Among those who presented were Tony Porter, the co-founder of A Call to Men, Tyler Yaken, the director of educational partnerships for Growing Leaders, and Garth DeFelice, a retired NFL official. Seahawks assistant head coach/defense Rocky Seto and Bainter both focused on player safety.
"It's easy to find clinics and support for coaches that are focused on Xs and Os," said Tony Davis, the head coach and athletic director at Tahoma High School. "What I'm finding as I put my AD hat on is that it's not the Xs and Ox that hurt coaches, it's the relationship stuff, it's the connections with kids, it's communication with parents. More often than not, those are the things that create problems for coaches. So to have the focus, especially from an NFL standpoint, to be mostly on off-the-field things and the mental part of it, the non-physical part of it, it was impressive and very valuable.
"I thought that was outstanding… I thought that was really valuable."
While much of the day focused on off-field topics, the presentations by Bainter and Seto were equally important. The Seahawks have in the past two years put together instructional videos that teach their method of shoulder-based tackling, a technique similar to what rugby players use. The Seahawks have found that focusing on that style of hitting, they are not only reducing injuries, but also becoming more effective tacklers. As Seto notes, the Seahawks allowed 4.6 yards after catch last year, a full yard better than the league average and the lowest number in the NFL.
"We talked about tackling," Seto said. "I tried to raise awareness about the state of the game. There has been a lot of news in terms of the health of players. We all have a responsibility to teach the best techniques to keep players safe and to help the game, and I really believe that starts at that Pop Warner level. We have a platform and influence as an NFL team, so I think we have a responsibility to help in that way. We want to help give our players the best technique possible, but also help bring awareness and educate if we can."
While the Seahawks' tackling technique helps them perform better and stay safer on the field, the reason they put out these videos each year, and the reason Seto will go talk to coaches around the country for free is not that it helps the Seahawks, but that it helps promote safety at all levels, which in turn will also help the game thrive.
"Most people are going to play high school," Seto said. "How many people play in college, let alone the pros? I'm talking about the volume of player who can be affected by this. This is about mom and dad saying, 'OK, son, you can play high school football' or, 'OK, you can play Pop Warner football.' That's what we're talking about."
For Bainter, a member of USA Football's Football and Wellness Committee, finding ways to improve player safety is "of paramount importance. If we don't, there won't be the game that we know and love… Ultimately it comes down to how we coach the game, how to properly block and tackle without using the head. Those are the things we're going to have to do to save the great game of football, so events like this are extremely important."