How We Coach is a weekly series that deconstructs how coaches run their program: we explore their unique process, habits, practices, and coaching philosophies. Find out what keeps coaches up at night, how they teach, and what they do to improve every day. #HowWeCoach
Football is not only played in the US, so today we are talking to Piergiorgio Degli Esposti, Specials Teams Coordinator for the Italian National Team.
Piergiorgio, could you provide a brief description of your background?
Proud father of G and husband of Stefy. I’m a university professor teaching Sociology and Marketing at the University of Bologna, and I have previously studied and worked in the US at Maryland University UMD and Duquesne University Pittsburgh teaching Sports and Society.
Played linebacker for teams in Italy from1988 to 2000. As a player, I have always been an average, even though I have been a national champion with Towers Bologna junior team in 1990 and with the Phoenix-San Lazaro senior team in 1996. I’ve played for several teams: Towers Bologna, Phoenix San Lazzaro, Warriors Bologna.
As a coach, I began my career in a small division III team: American Felix Molinella. Due to the fact that the team was a small, the organizational roles weren’t strictly defined and changed week by week from OC to DC according to the team’s needs, but I have always kept Special Teams as my priority. After several seasons with American Felix, I came back to Bologna as ST coordinator for the Bologna Doves IFL for the 2008 season. Then from 2009 I had the same role for the Warriors Bologna IFL for 6 seasons (also served as DC for the junior team for one season). In 2015, I was the Head Coach for the Bologna Seahawks division II team, and in 2016, I will be Aquile Ferrara IFL ST coordinator. My career with the Italian national team began in 2012 with a 4 helmet tournament as a Special Teams assistant and I’m tomorrow is my first Game as Special Teams coordinator against the Swiss national team.
Current coaching assignment?
Italian National Team ST coordinator & Aquila Ferrara IFL ST coordinator
Where did you grow up, go to school?
I grew up in Bologna (Italy) but I’ve traveled a lot in order to improve my education and skills. I’ve studied in Groningen (The Netherlands), Cork (Ireland), Washington DC, and Pittsburgh.
How did you end up coaching football?
Football has always, since I was a teenager, been a strong passion and I loved watching NFL games and play early 80s football video games (Intellivision, Atari, Commodore 64, Nintendo, and then PC games). I have always loved studying the game; both from a technical and a cultural point of view. I was lucky enough to live in Bologna where at the times there were three American Football teams.
Can you give a bit of background on your program?
In Italy it’s not always easy to set up a program and pursue it for the long term (often teams boards are focused on immediate results – and for most of the players football is a recreational activity), having a strong core program is essential at any level and from my personal point of view working on fundamentals is of equal importance as it is giving the players the opportunity of playing more games as possible. Scrimmages and friendlies are crucial and as said together with fundamentals stressed in any practice on and off-season leads to team progress.
As a team, what are your core tenants/pillars?
Football more than any other sport is a TEAM sport and emphasizing the TEAMWORK is the most important element of any program and organization. During both a person’s sport career and their professional career you can easily tell who’s a football player and who’s not. Keeping everyone in the organization involved in the strive to success builds a strong core of people with a common goal and with the will of overcoming obstacles of any kind, doing sacrifices just to enjoy the true sports value and with the respect of the competition. Strong work ethics are essential, then, of course, comes the technical aspect. Playing modern and smart football nowadays is very important; the kids are connected to the Internet- they read blogs and see practices and drill of any kind online you can not cheat them and you have not to! As Lombardi used to say “They call it coaching but it is teaching. You do not just tell them…you show them the reasons.”
What’s your main philosophy as a coach?
It’s a game, so enjoy it! We are not professionals, but we have to behave like we are, but have never to forget the fun parts. But the fun comes only if you get results so having strong work ethics definitely has to be the backbone of any coaching philosophy. My mantra is a quote from Lou Holtz: “If what you did yesterday seems big, you haven’t done anything today”.
Once a coach told me football has a problem with terminology, what you call defense is, in fact, offense and vice versa. Just imagine a medieval battle, where those who attack the castle in football are the defenders and those who throw out things from the castle are the offenders. That’s a nice metaphor, of course, but I do love the idea that defense has to be an aggressive unit. Speed, smart assignments, and letting players enjoy playing are my defensive mantra. But when I’m on the field “redirect” and “make a play” are the things I say more to my athletes.
“Speed kills”, play smart and up-tempo: use fewer concepts, discipline and execution and the mindset “nothing ventured nothing gained”.
Special teams philosophy?
Special teams are as important as offense and defense, and as a special teams coach, it’s obvious I have always an eye on that. You can win and lose games on special teams, and if you do not treat ST as a third of the game there will be more losses than victories. I practice 2 special teams every practice plus a special session on special skills every day and then all ST the walk through the day.
How many is on your coaching staff?
6 to 8. Ideally 6 assistants and two coordinators.
What’s the difference coaching a national team and a league team?
Coaching a national team means you interact with players that already excellent skills, big expectations for every practice. It’s more challenging from a technical point of view. Coaching a league team differs in that, first of all, not all the players have same technical skill level, which means you have to mix things up in order for practices not to be too boring for your best players but also involve as much as possible the less skilled ones, coaching really means teaching and also requires good managerial skills.
When does a new season start?
In my mind 2 weeks after the old one is ended, in reality, it depends on the organization. Generally speaking in Italy, the junior season starts in June and the senior season starts in November (often many teams postpone these deadlines to the very end). Junior season ends in December and the senior season ends late June. (due to the fact that may team are small organization very few can handle to keep two different and separate programs contemporary).
Specifically, how do your coaching staff do your planning?
Offseason half of the coaching staff is involved and we run just 2 practices a week. We use Whatsapp to manage communication with the coaching staff, and I send the practice plan then we have a brief pre-practice meeting (10 minutes) and then take to the field for around 2 hours.
What is your main focus areas during the off-season?
Work hard, have fun, and enjoy the sacrifice you are making.
Could you provide a short summary of the different phases and priorities?
Our typical offseason schedule is split into 2 X 45 minutes physical preparation and 45 minutes fundamentals divided into sections. Every player has to practice positional fundamentals. The last 30 minutes we play a flag football tournament, kind of passing league.
How does a normal week play out offseason? What are the key “milestones”?
2 practice: one Tuesday and one Thursday. Once a week a beer or a pizza with the guys.
milestones are: 1 remove rust (2 wks – 4 practices at most). 2 switches on (one month – 8 practices). 3 pre season (8 wks before gameday – 20 to 24 practices). When it is possible 2 mini camps during the summer July and September.
How does a normal week play out in-season? What are the key “milestones”?
Monday – Team video session for previous game and scout the next opponent.
Tuesday – Full practice
Thursday – Full practice
Saturday – Walkthrough
Do you use analytics as a tool when gaming planning or self-scouting?
Yes, i do I’m pretty fanatic about scouting and game planning.
How do you run your scout team?
I personally draw opponent play cards and from Tuesday my assistants off and defense have the playlist and the diagrams of the opponent and we run two practices trying defense and offense vs next opponent playcards
How do you work with in-game adjustments?
During 1st and 2nd quarter I always use empty play cards for special adjustment and give them to my assistants asking them to fix the issue. At half time we chill out for a couple of minutes, then I have a briefing with the staff and decide situations that need bigger adjustment.
I read an article about the Houston Texans and how they work on the gameplan. They said it was a collaborative process – how do you run it in your program? Is it also a collaborative process for your team?
I do 100% agree with that statement even if sometimes is hard to make it as a collaborative process. In my experience, it is like that in a national team, but is not in a franchise team. Often coaches have little PC skills and sometimes just do not do love doing that.
I try always to talk with the staff and listen to any suggestions every critique or suggestion has to be taken as the stimulus for getting better and better.
Which tools and process do you use when preparing for an opponent?
Video analysis and stats are the bread and butter. Then I do love to consult literature and case history of who already faced similar situations or systems. Used also to watch Facebook profiles of opponent players and coaches but I noticed that is less and less useful, about the gossip football I just listen to my locker room voices.
What’s your process for post-game follow-up?
after the game chill out (essential) then the game played video analysis and next opponent video analysis (the day right after our game).
Young players today are they different from 10 years ago?
They absolutely are! We live in a global multicultural society and they are digital natives! Love every new generation.
How do you maximize their learning and engage them?
Try to talk their language and use the tools they use as long as I can keep on innovating.
What’s your process of getting players into the playbook?
The first thing players receive are our plays diagrams Facebook- a Facebook group is effective. Not all the plays directly, instead we start out with formations, then concepts, and then plays. We get it out there little by little so we can see if they get a concept for instance and don’t get stuck. On the field my assistants have play cards, and we show these cards before every play instructing the players what they have to do. Personally, I love colors and every backfield player has a unique color in order to optimize players visibility. Once, being desperate, I provided players with colored wristbands unique for each position with one single instruction for each player (made that thanks to my customized Excel spreadsheet)
What’s your morning routine?
Family first; kiss my kid and wife, walk the dog, and then breakfast. No screen time before I get to the office.
The last thing on your mind before you sleep?
My kid and my dog (he used to sleep on my legs)
Do you have any beliefs about football strategy that is contrarian?
Rules are made to be broken.
What’s your go to play on 3rd and short?
The one my team can execute best.
If you could only one play for an entire game- what would it be?
Any play perfectly executed can be lethal.
If you could run an NFL or Division 1 program, which program, and what would you do first?
The Steelers since I used to lived there and believe the link between the city and the football team is something special.
What are your coaching influences?
Bill Parcells and Gus Malzahn
Who inspires you as a leader/coach?
Barak Obama and Maya Angelou.
How do you envision football will change over the next 5-10 years?
The game will drastically change with regards to rules, equipment, basically everything. From being a game of strength and power, it has become a game of speed. Speed and athleticism will remain crucial because they are spectacular traits, but the safety of players will lead to structural changes in the game.
Any difference in HS/college/NFL?
The technological component of the game is becoming dominant, but it is also expensive. It is just a hypothesis but HS football will become just propaedeutic to the tackle football. Basically same sport in fundamentals but with a less destructive impact on the body. May be taken will be played only from 16 or 18 years of age. It is just my personal hypothesis but for sure the game will change a lot.
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