I think that best practice in educational theory may offer some insight as to why we suck on the road.This will not be an exhaustive discussion on why we suck on the road, to be sure, but I hope to offer some insight.
I will preface the conversation with two points:
- Hoke talks about mental toughness and physical toughness a lot. My intention here is to call into question what our team's "mental toughness" looks like. Many have already done it; I attempt to offer some level of explanation based on how much I'm aware of Hoke's teaching/coaching styles and philosophies.
- Leadership, under Hoke, seems to be defined using an "active constructive," "positive psychology" method of team- and relationship-building. Hoke's players will run through a wall for him; it seems that they are not, however, able to play effectively in hostile environments (specifically the offense). I intend to draw comparisons between coaching styles/philosophies under Bo and under Hoke.
And a couple definitions, in case you are unfamiliar:
Positive Psychology: a movement of psychology, largely led by psych researchers at U-M and UPenn, which attempts to be constructive in developing students' awareness of their abilities and their willingness to persevere
Active Constructive response: A way of responding to a student that suggests either implicitly or explicitly that they can do something that they are trying to do
Active Destructive response: A way of responding to a student that suggests either implicitly or explicitly that they cannot do something that they are trying to do
My conclusion is drawn from having built an awareness of what practice looks like under Hoke. I have attended one or two practices, and I have read press conferences from players + coaches, and I have seen the released practice videos by MGoVideo. I have observed the following:
- The coaches have historically been very high energy, doing a lot of encouragement and pushing via yelling. Yelling is not, in itself, active destructive.
- The coaches have always seemed highly positive toward the players for doing a good job, and their responses to players who screw up has always seemed encouraging, constructive, etc. I recall one specific example where Hoke said to a player, "You came up like a big pincher bug. You don't wanna do that. Come on. You're better than that."
- Devin Gardner has spoken of fans that are difficult to tolerate when on the road, especially when he is on the sideline.
- The primary tactic for coaching to hostile environments has, it seems, been limited making the environment noisy and creating other neutral environmental factors.
These different points suggest two things:
- That positive psychology is the primary tactic used in coaching under Hoke.
- That our quarterback (a lynchpin to our offense, which is cited specifically to suck on the road) has made special note of the hostility of opposing fans.
Positive psych encourages relationship building between coaches and players, and ultimately is considered a more effective educational strategy. This makes sense considering the commitment that Hoke's players have to him, and the level of recruitment Hoke has been able to achieve.
Based off of reading some of Bo's work, my understanding is that the way that he coached was different. Bo tells stories of using active destructive responses routinely. Rather famously, he routinely called Jim Brandstatter "the worst tackle in intercollegiate football." Woody Hayes is described as coaching in a similar (albeit more physically abusive) way. Active destructive is in many ways the opposite of active constructive: It is designed, essentially, to make you feel that you can never accomplish what you are trying to accomplish. This differs sharply from the techniques that it seems Hoke and co. are using to teach, and I wonder if, specifically, it affects road performance. Bo, in contrast to Hoke, went 14-5 on the road in his first four years as coach. Compare this to Hoke's existing 7-13.
My hypothesis is this: Because our coaches spend their energy primarily building a psychologically positive environment, they have lost a valuable aspect of the otherwise ugly response form known as active destructive: put differently, they have lost the "mental toughness" built by working and growing through hostility. Away stadiums are entirely hostile environments; if the hostility is not noticeable from the crowd because of distance from the sideline, it will be noticeable from the opposing team. If a practice environment fails to produce hostility, it seems unlikely that its players will be able to keep their heads when they face real hostility.
Just to be clear: I fully embrace positive psych and believe strongly in its efficacy, educational and otherwise. But I suggest that simulating hostility--not just simulating a hostile environment--may be useful to develop what Hoke calls "mental toughness." Furthermore, I do not suggest that the verbally and physically aggressive tactics of Bo and Woody must necessarily remain relevant today in order to produce great football teams.
I doubt data exists on how many teams have incorporated positive psychology into their practices, and I doubt data exists on how many teams have incorporated active destructive responses into their practices. Therefore, my thoughts will remain a hypothesis. But I think it is worth considering whether one of the reasons we fail to compete on the road is because our coaches have failed to produce hostility in practice, thereby failing to prepare our players to encounter that hostility.
Obviously, there are many limitations on my hypothesis and the "data" (anecdotal information, really) supporting. This is likely not the only reason for our failures on the road, but may help to explain a part of why we fail when put in these situations. In fact, active destructive responses do not need to be the default as they were in Bo's practices. Simply, it is possible to create a hostile environment where coaches are emulating active destructive comments to players in order to adjust them to the reality of hostility.
Furthermore, I accept and acknowledge that this is not a comprehensive look at coaching tactics given that I am missing a lot of information. Much further investigation into the tactics used to build "mental toughness." Bo also pronounced that one should never yell at a player in a game, which seems to reflect more of a positive psychology.
I would be interested to see what research might yield about the numbers of our OL and QB would look like on the road.
An alternative (or supplementary) hypothesis might note that our record on the road against ranked teams features a greater disparity than against unranked teams. "Mental toughness" may go out the window when players feel unprepared or discouraged by being overpowered, overrun, and outperformed, which may be more resultant of poor development.
It is worth noting that Bo had many players quit when he became coach. This could be because of the seemingly "inhumane" treatment of the active destructive response. In addition, it is worth noting that Bo often failed in high profile away games (namely bowl games), and that Bo and Hoke are limited samples. There are also numerous confounding variables, such as scheme, development of talent, et al.
One thing remains certain: Many changes must happen if we hope to compete, and especially if we hope to compete on the road.
tl;dr I hypothesize that one reason for our road gaffs may be the apparent absence of simulated hostility in practice. I find this argument compelling, but acknowledge that defaulting to active destructive responses as in the days of yore are not necessary to make a good football team.