FRISCO – The Cowboys will not be holding any in-person team or position group meetings on Wednesday.
Or the next day. Or the next day.
For most of that month, in which Dallas went 4-0 and won the NFC East, coach Mike McCarthy kept his team under improved COVID-19 protocols, demanding virtual meetings be held to limit face-to-face interactions between players.
McCarthy’s proactive approach reflected his desire to mitigate the transmission of the virus. It was also a testament to his confidence in the virtual meeting format.
It increased after asking for help.
“You have great resources here locally,” McCarthy said. “You cannot be blind or ignorant of this. … It was one of the most important things on our to-do list in the offseason. We clearly needed to be better.
On April 8, two professors from the University of North Texas visited the Star’s Ford Center, giving a 10-point presentation to the coaches. A meeting that was supposed to last an hour lasted more than 90 minutes, the professors said. The discussion laid the groundwork for the Cowboys’ offseason program and, to some extent, the success that followed.
Virtual meetings were not a team force in 2020.
Player engagement was low. The retention of learning was low. These shortcomings were most evident in defense, as then coordinator Mike Nolan struggled to install a system without benefiting from the spring training time.
The Cowboys were open to ideas.
Newcomers to the staff, like defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, have brought it in. McCarthy stayed open for more. Three weeks before the draft, a Cowboys boardroom turned into a makeshift North Texas boardroom.
At the end of 2018, Dr Adam Fein left Illinois to become UNT’s vice president for digital strategy and innovation. Around this time, he sat down with Dr Rudi Thompson for coffee, and they discussed the principles related to the strategic methods and mechanisms behind teaching and learning.
Today, Thompson is Fein’s assistant vice president for digital strategy and innovation, as well as executive director of the Center for Learning, Experimentation, Application and Research.
“I was going to say no to him,” Thompson said. “At the end of the day, we were at the top.
Fein and Thompson know a thing or two about what learning looks like.
They saw him on the Cowboys coaching staff.
Quinn was seated in the front row. He and other coaches leaned forward, taking notes and asking thoughtful questions. They were very receptive to the 10 tips, tricks and techniques offered by Fein and Thompson.
The presentation began with a three-minute YouTube video titled “A Conference Call in Real Life,” which comically depicts the awkwardness of virtual meetings.
This was the first lesson for virtual meetings: Set the tone.
# 2: Do a quick check-in. This can include a fun, informal icebreaker that helps learners settle into the meeting.
# 3: Discuss expectations. Borrowing from the theory of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Fein and Thompson addressed the importance of backwards design, explaining to players what they would learn upon completion of this reunion setup.
If active participation is to be expected, let them know early.
Let players know what’s to come so they can prepare accordingly.
No. 4. Keep the slide text short and simple to avoid cognitive overflow.
# 5: obey the five-minute rule. Do not wait more than five minutes to check in with the players and make sure they are absorbing the information as intended. Twenty is too long.
And so on, encouraging coaches to tap into the players’ natural competitive spirit. WebX, the video platform the Cowboys use for virtual meetings, offers an example poll feature. WebX also has a breakout room function. Take it to your advantage; Have the players perform the think-pair-share technique.
Encourage player-to-player interaction on the content being taught. Bring real world examples. Tell the players what they will learn in the next meeting, so they can link the content.
End with a burning question. This is the entry ticket for the players for the next meeting. By assigning players to arrive at the next meeting with a question they had from the previous one, recall and refocusing improves.
At the end of the day, coaches are teachers.
Fein and Thompson’s talk was about teachers helping teachers.
Beyond those 10 points and a long question-and-answer period, the capabilities of the WebX service the Cowboys use have expanded since last season. The team’s video staff worked to improve the resources available to coaches, allowing them to do more in a virtual classroom.
Special teams coordinator John Fassel said he now uses an online telester.
“I can watch a movie, and the guys watch what I’m watching, and I can take a break, and I can draw, and I can watch it, almost like they do on TV,” Fassel said. “So we have the capacity to do it. I think it gives it a little more life when you can pause, circle, pause, arrow, draw happy faces or whatever. All kinds of tools.
“I’m still learning a lot about the virtual world on how to bring it to life and make it interactive. It will never replace being in the same room. I think there are ways to improve it for sure, because we’re probably going to be in it for a while.
Fein and Thompson left the Ford Center, they said, impressed with the Cowboys ‘coaches’ openness to learning. Thompson was raised as a fan of the Cowboys, which makes her excitement even worse.
Fein grew up with the Chicago Bears.
He started to come.
“When you meet people and see how much they care about their work and the success of the franchise,” said Fein, “it makes you clap louder.… Considering the success they have on the court, this not surprising to me because they spent the extra time doing the things they needed to do and thought outside the box, frankly.
“It was pretty special. I am a huge fan now.
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