At the end of each football season, coaches across the country take inventory of what is working and what needs improvement. At Van Wert High School in Ohio, head coach Keith Recker knew that he had his work cut for him. After a string of lackluster seasons that culminated in an 0-10 record, Coach Recker set out to make some significant changes,
“We were struggling as a program on and off the field. We had good players, but we were getting outperformed. And sure, we were losing, but we also were having issues with suspensions and athletes getting into trouble. As a coaching staff, we had to rethink our approach to developing young athletes.”
That 0-10 season happened in 2016. Since then, Van Wert has yet to have another losing season. In addition to regular season wins, the Van Wert Cougars have made multiple deep playoff runs and hoisted their first-ever state championship trophy in school history.
This turnaround from worst to first didn’t happen by accident. Instead, Keith Recker and his fellow coaches focused on developing athletes on and off the field through consistent and clear expectations to achieve this success.
From Catchy Clinic Ideas To Consistent Culture
Like many coaches, Keith Recker would attend conferences and clinics over the off-season in search of solutions. But as the Van Wert program continued to struggle, Keith knew that clinics weren’t going to be the magic solution to Van Wert’s challenges,
“In the past, we would get a catchy slogan to put on a poster or T-shirt. Or we would see a flashy off-season workout program that promised better results.”
And while Keith would walk away from clinics with fresh ideas to apply for the upcoming season, he sensed the lack of a consistent culture,
“We didn’t have a true direction with our culture. We could pick up a cool new idea at a clinic or conference, but it wouldn’t instill lasting change.”
As a result, Keith decided to ditch the catchy slogans and turn to a consistent message,
“We decided to focus on the core components of what would make a good team. We talked about changing your best. What can you do to be the best version of yourself on and off the field?”
To support the goals of consistency and culture, Keith turned to two programs that have now been staples of the Van Wert football program since 2017.
The REAL Man Program
As a football coach, Keith knew his job was more than just winning games,
“We could be the best team, but it means nothing if we aren’t respected off the field. We want these athletes to be the best young men they can be.”
To drive this home with his athletes, Van Wert adopted “The REAL Man” program. The acronym REAL stands for:
R – Respect All People
E – Especially Women
A – Always Do What is Right
L – Live a Life that Matters
Each day, a different lesson is introduced to the Van Wert football players. Coach Recker tasks all members of his coaching staff to lead a short lesson where they can present the key topics and share personal stories,
“It is powerful for our coaches to get up and share what they have been through. It helps to reinforce what we want our young athletes to be like on and off the field.”
The PLT4M Program
In addition to the REAL Man program, Van Wert also focused on the power of strength and conditioning,
“The weight room is a powerful place to develop physically and mentally. Therefore, we wanted the weight room and training to be a core component of our overall football program.
“There were days we had more coaches than athletes in the weight room. But over time, we have our athletes embrace what the weight room could do for on-field success.”
After growing the culture, Van Vert has seen measurable signs of success. Past just getting bigger, faster, and stronger, Keith says that the most significant impact has been on injury prevention,
“We have seen a dramatic decrease in the number of injuries, and that is a credit to using professionally designed programs. Having a long-term plan in the weight room has allowed more athletes to reap the benefits on and off the field.”
Success Isn’t Guaranteed – Long-Term Goals For Continued Results
While Van Wert is proud of the accomplishments on and off the football field, they know past success doesn’t guarantee future results. Even after a state championship victory in 2020 and falling just short at the regional championship in 2021 and 2022, Keith and his fellow coaches still take a yearly inventory of what is working and what needs changing,
“As coaches, we always want to make sure we are evaluating our approach. But every year since 2017, the REAL Man program and PLT4M have been consistent components of our program, and it has paid off.”
As the programs continue to be a core component for the football team, Keith says that he has goals to continue building the culture for all athletes at the school,
“The football team has seen the benefits of the weight room and strength and conditioning. But we want every student-athlete at our school to see the same results.”
For Keith, this means helping younger athletes, female athletes, and all students to benefit from the weight room. As the school continues to evolve, Keith has transitioned from the math classroom to the weight room as a PE teacher and strength and conditioning coach.
Van Wert has taken major steps to improve on the field, in the classroom, and throughout the community. But, the best part of their journey is that they are far from finished. Stay tuned for more from Van Wert High School.