Lights On

We've all heard the phrase. Coaches utilize it time and again to describe a player who has made a seemingly quick rise from mediocrity to potential contributor. When asked to describe what cause a player to jump from the third or fourth team to a position on the field, someone will invariably say, ‘The lights just came on for him.' A neat idiom, to be sure, but what's really behind it?

Of course, there might not be just one correct answer. Trying to figure out what the keys are to a player suddenly "getting it" and playing better can be like the proverbial group of blind men asked to describe an elephant. There could be 20 different reasons, and none of them would be wrong.

That's a bit of a cop-out, though, and if this article ended with that conclusion it would be pretty lame (not to mention pretty short). So, we went to two Mountaineer football coaches for opinions. To make sure we covered the spectrum, we went with a veteran and a relative youngster, and from opposite sides of the ball.

Our offensive target was veteran Bill Stewart, who has coached at many levels and has seen a number of players suddenly snap into gear and begin performing much better, for Stewart, one of the big keys is getting used to the speed of the game.

"You have to realize that everyone that comes here is a good player," Stewart said when talking about the beginnings of the process. "Some catch up to things quicker than others, and get used to how fast everything moves. Other guys can take a little longer."

In order to get players used to the pace of the game, Stewart tries to get them at least a bit of playing time as early as possible. Sometimes that toe in the water of collegiate competition is enough to help players turn that light on, but others can take longer.

"There are some guys who just struggle with the hype of playing in a game," Stewart noted. "They'll get out there in a game and get so hyped up they can't breathe, much less play."

Obviously, a player in that state is going to struggle mentally as well as physically, and probably isn't going to perform as well as he could. But once he gets used to the hype, and the pace, he might make a quantum leap in performance. Thus, on with the lights.

Defensive backs coach Tony Gibson has a different outlook on what often causes the leap, and it's one more of motivation than familiarity.

"I think the biggest thing is that when you sit around for a year or two and don't play, you know you have to produce or go somewhere else if you want to [get on the field]," Gibson said. "I think a lot of kids see that and mature. They want to be a part of what's going on."

Playing time, of course, has always been a prime motivator, but there's more to Gibson's comments than just getting on the field. There's a sense of belonging for a player that contributes in some manner, and that can't be achieved until the player accepts everything the coaching staff is trying to achieve, and commits himself totally to the program.

"You have to buy in 100% or you are going to get left behind," Gibson observed. "We have a lot of kids who do that, and then they pull in the guys who might be on the fence a little bit. They realize that's why they are here to play, and it all sort of sinks in."

Just as players respond to different sorts of motivation, there are certainly different factors in those big improvements that vault them from just another face in the media guide to a solid performer. Stewart agrees, noting "there are a lot of intangibles that go into it", and that there's some luck involved as well.

"Timing has a lot to do with it as well," the quarterbacks coach noted. "If the system is a good fit for the player, he might get it earlier, while someone that isn't as familiar with it might need more time. We tell those guys they don't have to save the world – they just have to learn to play within the scheme and get familiar with it. And as they get older and wiser and more experienced, they know what to do in different situations, so they become more ready to play."

Much as coaches, fans, and the players themselves would like to identify the magic bullet that would allow improvement, there's simply not one available. As Stewart says, it's a process, and one that is usually different for every player.

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