On the high school sidelines, help from an iPad

tstevens@newsobserver.comApril 20, 2013 

During football season, the late Glenn Nixon could be found every Saturday morning getting film developed from the previous night’s game.

The Clayton High coach was there before sunrise.

“I wanted to be there when the doors opened,” Nixon once said. “I wanted to get the film as soon as I could.”

There’ll be no more waiting until Saturday morning for high school football coaches, and those in other sports also will be getting a quicker look at game action. In fact, it’ll be happening during the competition.

Starting this fall, high school coaches throughout the country will be able to show their players recordings of games as they are being played, an instruction method that had been prohibited.

The national rules committees for soccer, football, swimming, volleyball and field hockey have passed rules changes that allow coaches to use electronic communication devices such as mobile phones and tablets during games. Rules committees in all other sports are expected to make similar changes before the 2013-14 season.

The coaches will not be able to use the devices to review decisions by game officials or to communicate with players while they are playing, but coaches will be allowed to use recordings on the sidelines and at the half.

Football coaches can show players opposing alignments. Basketball coaches can review scoring opportunities. Baseball coaches can show a pitcher an error in a delivery or give a tip to potential base stealers. A track coach can point out a flaw. All that and more.

“When the board met, it was apparent that the rule barring electronic communications couldn’t be enforced,” said Bruce Howard of the National Federation of High School Associations, which writes the high school rule book. “Then the question came up of why do we want or need the rule.”

Wakefield senior pole vaulter Kristen Lee said seeing a recording during a meet would help her tremendously.

“I learn best by seeing,” she said. “If you can show me what I’m doing, I can usually make changes. That is much easier for me than just telling me. If we could do that in meets, it would help a lot.”

Teaching during games

Recording devices are small, portable, inexpensive and ubiquitous, unlike the old cameras that were used in the past.

High schools don’t use film anymore. There are no reel-to-reel projectors in darkened rooms with masses of film spilling onto the floor. Videotape replaced film long ago, and videotape was replaced by DVDs. Some high school coaches now exchange electronic links rather than a physical recording.

The elaborate storage systems that organized reels of film from previous years have been replaced by plastic bins about the size of a loaf of bread that can contain an entire season’s discs. Portable electronic devices can hold a year’s worth of games.

Coaches already record their athletes in practice and use the recordings immediately, but they have been prohibited from doing that in games. National officials sensed the rule prohibiting electronic devices during games was as archaic, and as hard to control, as emails or social media.

“The rules are about five or 10 years behind the technology,” said Mark Dreibelbis, an N.C. High School Athletic Association assistant commissioner who has served on national rules committees in various sports.

The rule prohibiting the use of film and recordings in contests goes back to the film age, when the home team could create an advantage by having access to photography development equipment.

That isn’t a problem anymore. Everybody in the stands seems to have the ability to record almost everything.

“What the rules committees are doing is showing that our coaches are teachers first,” Dreibelbis said. “They want to teach, and they should be able to use the tools at their disposal, even in games.”

Ann Graham, the coach at perennial track power Wakefield, believes the rule change will be a huge benefit because track coaches can’t watch all of their athletes compete at the same time.

Graham said a coach could watch a recording and offer tips or point out flaws to an athlete before the next attempt or throw.

“The way it is now, the athlete sometimes has to waste an attempt just so the coach can watch,” Graham said.

Conrad Hall, the track coach at Cary Academy, said using tablets and other recording devices is the next inevitable step. He remembers when runners were not allowed to wear wristwatches.

“I see this technology as a potential way to give on-the-spot feedback to athletes to help make them better in a way that we haven’t been able to help them before,” Hall said. “At the high school level, we are really teachers of the sport, responsible for teaching the sport to kids at the very early stages of their development. Our athletes have so much to learn that can be assisted by coaches being able to give them more effective feedback.”

But some coaches, including veteran Fuquay-Varina baseball coach Milton Senter, see potential problems. He wonders if someone in centerfield will zoom in on the catcher’s signals and tip the batter about the next pitch or if teams will try to steal signals by recording the coaches.

“I hope each of the sports really thinks this through,” he said.

Too much like the pros

Watching quarterbacks flipping through stacks of pictures of past plays is a staple of NFL telecasts. Broughton High boys basketball coach Jeff Ferrell doesn’t think that sort of review, or even a group of players gathered around a tablet during a timeout, belongs in the high school game.

“It just doesn’t seem right,” said Ferrell, whose Caps advanced to the state 4A finals this spring. “That’s something the pros do. I don’t think we need that in high school. I think we’d be losing something. Simpler is better.”

Paul Dinkenor, a state championship boys and girls soccer coach at Leesville Road, can’t imagine how using electronic devices in games would help him be a better coach. He used to have his team watch tapes of past games and future opponents, but he has reduced time in the film room.

“I understand the thinking, but how would this actually work?” he said. “Am I supposed to find a videographer, and what kind of equipment do I need? I’m trying to coach the team. Maybe you could do something at the half, but it could be just one more thing to do.”

Fuquay’s Senter records practices, bullpen instruction and workouts and reviews the recordings with players individually, but he doesn’t plan to use recordings during games. He doesn’t want to give too much instruction during competition.

“We’re pretty much old-school in our thinking here. I want the players to do what they’ve practiced,” he said. “We’re not at the plate thinking about a lot of things other than the (pitch) count and the situation. I don’t think I’d see something on the video and try to have a player make adjustments during a game.”

‘I’m like a dinosaur’

Chapel Hill High’s Sherry Norris, whose girls basketball team played for the 3A title this year and who is the state’s all-time leader in volleyball coaching victories, plans to use an iPad to keep statistics. She believes some coaches will use recordings at halftime to help teams understand what is happening on the court.

“But I don’t think I could fix something that quickly,” she said. “In coaching, my kids need to hear it, see it and then do it in practice. We can’t make big changes without practicing them.”

The veteran coaches said the next generation of high school coaches may adapt to the use of recordings in games more easily.

“I’m like a dinosaur,” Ferrell said. “I may not be as quick to pick up on something new as some of the younger guys.”

Garner basketball coach Eddie Gray’s first job as a football assistant about 30 years ago was to carry film to Wilson to be developed on Saturday morning. He doesn’t put much merit in the recordings, either.

“I wouldn’t do that,” he said. “You can teach and instruct without showing pictures.”

The personal touch

Electronic feedback and interaction may be the wave of the future, but Leesville Road football coach Chad Smothers is wary. He already misses coach-to-coach communication, and he believes the more electronics, the less personal contact.

“There is all the electronic film exchange and emails with coaches, but I miss talking to the other coach when we swap DVDs,” he said. “You can fire off an email, but that’s so impersonal. I like the personal touch. I liked it when I’d meet the other coach and we’d eat a cheeseburger and just talk. I hope we don’t lose some of the personal touch, especially with our players, as we move more and more to electronic devices.”

The National Federation’s Howard said he understands some coaches’ reluctance to use more electronic communication during games, but said the rule changes are a logical step.

“The technology is there,” Howard said. “Time marches on.”

Nixon, the late Clayton football coach, said years ago that he wished everybody still used reel-to-reel tapes. He liked to hear the projector in the darkened room and hear the click when the projector was switched from forward to reverse.

He also thought the picture was better, although he never saw a recording in high definition.

Stevens: 919-829-8910

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