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Chasing Perfection

When 25-year old Bob Ladouceur took over as Head Football Coach at De La Salle (Calif.) High School in 1979, he inherited a program that had never experienced the joy of a winning season.

That all changed with a reboot of team culture during Ladouceur’s first season, which resulted in the school’s first winning season—ever. He had shifted the focus from moping over the team’s previous 13 consecutive losing seasons to invigorating its roster with a “team-first” attitude.

And the results were incredible. From 1992 through 2004, Ladouceur’s coaching innovations produced 12 straight undefeated seasons, which set a national record at the time of 151 consecutive wins. Such success landed him a spot in the National High School Hall of Fame in 2001.

Ladouceur shared an excerpt of his book, Chasing Perfection: The Principles Behind Winning Football the De La Salle Way, with Sports Feel Good Stories, in which he offered insights to other coaches who find themselves in similar situations. But for Ladouceur, the number of accumulating wins was never his main focus—just a byproduct of the culture he built within his team.

To begin, he approached every new season with the same intention of creating an “authentic team experience.” “That means being unselfish and doing what you’re told,” Ladouceur stated in his book. “Creating a team is much more difficult than teaching the game or a specific skill or technique. It’s teaching kids how to cooperate with other people. It’s making kids understand that they must lose some of them selves in order for a team to thrive.”

Especially over the course of a winning streak, student-athletes need to understand that “they are not it. They are part of it.” Even the high profile players Ladouceur coached along the way, including NFL stars Amani Toomer, Aaron Taylor, and Maurice Jones-Drew, were expected to live up to these standards. “We won’t stand for any selfish behavior, regardless of how talented a player might be,” he says.

The Spartans’ success truly stems from that very principle. “It means changing positions if we want you to. It means playing special teams like a demon, being on time, and working hard in the weight room,” says Ladouceur. “Our total and absolute focus is on team. I want them to understand what it means to sacrifice for a team and achieve team-related goals.”

Ladouceur is urging all coaches, regardless of sport, that this exact focal point is “where your priority has to be,” even when those on the outside are solely focused on the number of wins and losses. Over the 399 career victories he experienced as the Spartans’ head coach, De La Salle football players became accustomed to this expectation. “Our players set specific individual and unit-by-unit goals every week, including improvement goals, performance goals, and technique goals,” Ladouceur says. “We get good results that way. It’s because we insist on it. It’s the only way you can create a team atmosphere. We don’t play favorites. We don’t coddle anybody.”

Individual accountability was also a key to the Spartans’ 12-year undefeated streak and overall turnaround as a program. “I believe team is personality driven beginning with the individual. Are you a team guy? Do you know what it means to be a teammate? Do you know what it means to be a fully functioning member of a team?” says Ladouceur.

And that standard of accountability was applied both on and off the field. “If you lie, cheat, or steal around school, in your car, at home, or on the street, you’re violating team rules,” Ladouceur would tell his team. “If you drink alcohol or use drugs, tobacco products, or unapproved supplements, you’re in violation of team rules, period. If you sass a teacher or are disrespectful, we’ll mete out a fair punishment for that, too. If you don’t like it, too bad. That’s the way we do things.”

Those punishments, he explains, were “fair” and consistent,” meant to help these young student-athletes mold into better human beings. “If a player back sasses a teacher, and it’s not that serious or if it’s the first time, we’ll give him a warning. That’s it. Next time you sit for half or miss a game. No excuses,” says Ladouceur. “If a kid takes a swing at somebody, that’s automatic. He sits. Same thing if he gets caught drinking or smoking. That’s one game regardless of who next week’s opponent is or where we are in our season.”

Although met with plenty of backlash from parents in these instances, Ladouceur always stood firm and explained his reasoning. “I tell parents we operate in the best interest of your son. If your son is hurting the integrity of the team, he’s going to pay the price for it,” he says. “That will be a lesson it self. We want to do what’s in the best interest of the team and what’s in the best interest of your son as well.

“You have to be alcohol and drug-free to be a Spartan,” Ladouceur continues. “I tell parents their sons will improve dramatically as football players, they will learn to embrace fitness, and they will build lifelong friendships. And there won’t be one drop of alcohol involved. I would want my child to participate for that reason alone.”

Whatever the situation may be, Ladouceur believes that the role of a high school coach is to establish a team-first culture and continue to hold student-athletes accountable. “Kids might be worried about playing time, but they should be thankful for everything else they get out of it: friendship, lifestyle, camaraderie, and discipline,” says Ladouceur. “These are kids. You’re trying to mold them. You’re preparing them for life.”

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