top of page

How to develop Championship Level Quarterbacks

There is not much argument, on any level of football, that to win consistently and compete for championships you need strong quarterback play. So what defines strong quarterback play and how do you develop that consistently within an organization? This series of articles will lay out a clear path that can easily be followed in any program given the proper attention.

Let’s first discuss what goes into the making of a great quarterback. From there, you’ll be in a better position to choose who to invest your time in and how to develop them year after year so that the success of your program can become predictable. Wouldn’t that be nice?

In January 2008, Geoffrey Colvin published a fascinating book which every football coach in America would benefit from reading called Talent is overrated: What Really Separates Word Class Performers from Everyone Else. The premise of the book fundamentally proved through credible scientific based research studies that, barring a certain body type required for a specific sport (like the size of an NFL Lineman or the speed of an NFL receiver), anyone can achieve mastery in a chosen sport subject to the following qualifying factors.

  1. Assigned Programming

  2. Requires Feedback

  3. Takes A LOT of practice

  4. Is Mentally Challenging

  5. Isn’t much Fun!

Isn’t that really just the sum of qualified coaching combined with a strong and highly focused work ethic? The case studies sited in his book scientifically supported the fact that any individual can, through the structure above, reach a higher level of success though applied work ethic than by simply relying on talent alone.

Look at it this way (Figure 1). Everyone has what I call a Natural Level of Achievement in which their combined past experience and natural abilities will take them to a certain achievement level. Think of this level as a ceiling of achievement. An individual will bounce off that ceiling if they continue to rely solely on effort and natural ability.

For any athlete to break through that ceiling and move to mastery or to reach a higher level beyond which their natural abilities will take them, programmed learning is required. One has to apply effort differently, in a way that is unnatural, requires a lot of hard work and it isn’t necessarily fun. Proper coaching from a qualified person is required. I call this Modeling Behavior. It’s following a proven method or system. It’s following a path that others have laid out previously. No one succeeds alone, right? It seems so simple when we look at it this way but finding that path is not always easy. In this article, I hope to lay out a straight forward path for you to follow to properly develop quarterbacks!

Figure 1

When we look at this perspective foundationally and apply it to coaching today’s quarterback, I can confidently say that coaching today’s quarterback to a high level is beyond the scope of a vast majority of junior or high school coaches, either from a depth of knowledge standpoint or from an availability of time standpoint. The Quarterback position may be the most difficult position to play proficiently in all of sport. Many agree that it’s also the most under coached. So while I will give you development content and self-improvement drills for your quarterbacks in these articles, I do suggest that you encourage your aspiring quarterback to get outside help from a qualified quarterback coach either through camps or private coaching. As a head coach or coordinator, you’re not expected to know the fine details of developing quarterbacks. In addition, you shouldn’t be opposed to outside coaching because scheme is not something that these sorts of camps and coaching get into. They predominantly coach only widely accepted foundational techniques and skills. In my experience, if a coach has any resistance to outside coaching from a reputable quarterback coach then it’s normally ego driven. Even the top NCAA and NFL Quarterbacks still seek outside help when it comes to fine tuning their mechanics.

How to Identify the best candidate for playing quarterback

Often times a coach at the high school level will utilize what I call the ‘show up athlete’ approach. Here, they take their best overall athlete who can throw the ball well enough to run the system at a decent level. This can work and you can win a lot of games if you have a great supporting cast but it rarely wins championships and you can’t build consistent year-in and year-out success with this approach.

Ideally, you want to find kids at an early enough age—ideally 7th and 8th grade level athletes—who either are or can be inspired by the challenge of being a quarterback. Kids at this age can be groomed for leadership plus they haven’t developed any bad mechanical habits that can be very difficult, if not impossible, to break. Finding athletes who are inspired by the challenge of being a quarterback is a lot different than playing quarterback. The show up athlete method above defines athletes who play quarterback but they’re normally not quarterbacks in terms of everything that being a quarterback entails. I’ll take it a step further and say that I often see highly drafted NFL athletes playing quarterback but predictably, they normally never lead their organization to high levels of success and their careers are normally short lived. You see, being a quarterback involves so much more. It requires a strong foundation of both character and leadership upon which relationships, work ethics, models and coaching systems can be built (Fig 2). Ultimately, this is the product that will represent the face of your organization and will be largely responsible for how successful it can be. Renowned leadership author, John Maxwell, defines The Law of the Lid (Fig 3) as a predictable measure of any organization’s maximum level of success being just below the level of its leadership. So, on a scale of 1 to 5, if Leadership is a 4 then organizational success will never be above a 3. If Leadership is a 2 then potential organizational success maxes out at 1. When applied to a football organization, leadership would represent the administration or front office, the head coach and to a large degree the quarterback. So when it comes to your quarterback, Character and Leadership are of great importance!

Fig 2

I will challenge you to stop reading right now and think for a moment about any organization in sports or business that consistently succeeds at a high level without top notch leadership. Sure, you’ll get short term exceptions from time to time but they’re rare and never long lasting. What I’m focusing on in this article is building a consistent championship level program; one that’s predictable year in and year out.

So let’s talk about leadership. What is leadership and what does that look like to a young student athlete in the midst of their developmental process?

It seems so common for me to hear coaches preaching to athletes whom they think should be team leaders this common phrase, “Be a leader out there!” or “Hey you Seniors, you need to be leaders!” The problem is, they don’t know what that looks like or how to begin doing it so they often resign themselves to being vocal and sometimes even yelling at their teammates. This behavior often ends up coming across in a condescending way. Either that or these appointed leaders act in some sort of entitled way like they have special privileges over their teammates. This normally ends up creating resentment. In the end, their efforts to be leaders end up having the opposite effect of its intent. Obviously, this is not good for the culture of a program and its overall success. One of the fundamental breakdowns in the beginning here is that Leadership cannot be appointed to someone. It doesn’t come with a title like team captain or a position held like a quarterback or a class such as a group of seniors. It has to be earned but before it can be earned it has to be learned.

Harriet Tubman was born into Slavery in 1822. As an adult in 1849, after escaping to Philadelphia to gain her freedom, she worked to save just enough money to go on thirteen separate missions to save over seventy slaves through the underground railroad. She later went on to work in the Woman’s Suffrage movement until she died in 1922. She is revered as being a great leader in American history yet she had no assigned title and wasn’t part of a special social class*.

What is Leadership defined? It’s many things but in its simplest form I say Leadership is influence. Really, it’s nothing more and nothing less. There can be good leaders who influence others in a positive way and there can be bad leaders who influence in a negative way. Adolph Hitler comes to mind here. He was a leader who influenced an entire country toward one of the greatest tragedies of all time where 6 million Jews were killed in a Holocaust from 1933 to 1945.

Who is capable of being a Leader? Anyone, because leadership is a learned behavior. It can be taught. There is no such thing as a born leader. Obviously, better athletes and certain position types such as quarterbacks have an advantage because others already look up to them due to their performance on the field but that can backfire if you rely on that as the sole criteria in selecting your team leaders.

So the question becomes, what do people want from their leaders and how do you break it down into a teachable way for young people? If leadership is influence then one needs to inspire others to act—to do something. In order for a young athlete to follow someone, a few key elements have to be in place first. One of these elements is trust which comes from honesty and integrity. Call it character. That’s why in the model of success (Fig 2) character is the foundational element. Once a person trusts someone they may be willing to follow them. Secondly, they should like them. In order for someone to be likable they need to know how to connect with others. It is ALWAYS the leader’s responsibility to be the one to reach out to connect with someone. Leaders can’t depend on others to reach out to them. The problem is, kids don’t necessarily know how to do this and the high tech culture that they live in now isn’t helping them learn these interpersonal skills. One simple approach to teaching kids how to connect is to teach them to stay in a mental state of genuine curiosity when trying to connect with someone; almost as if they were writing a research paper on the person and had to learn about them.

F Family – Tell me about your family? How may brothers and sisters? Where are you from?

O Occupation – What’s your dad do? Does he enjoy it? How about your mother?

R Recreation – What do you like to do outside of school? What else do you like to do?

D Dreams – What do you hope to do after finishing school? College plans? etc..

The key is two fold 1.) stay curious and 2.) be genuine. When I teach this to kids I can literally see their faces light up. And hey, let’s be honest, it’s a great way for them to meet girls, too! The truth is, I met my wife this way. We laugh about it all the time. She tells me it felt like she was being interviewed. But it worked!

Once a leader has someone’s trust, is well liked and has connected with them they are in a position to motivate and inspire movement—to affect change. Now you have a culture within your organization in which true leadership can operate and thrive. From there, it’s just a matter of sharing your vision on a regular basis (daily) to your leaders and teaching them how to empower others. In addition, teach them the importance of being vulnerable themselves so that they can to show compassion and communicate love to their teammates. Have you ever met someone who is genuine, caring, self-deprecating, vulnerable, inquisitive in getting to know you and selfless in their actions that you didn’t like? I doubt it.

Finally, leadership cannot exist without understanding that it’s all based in service to others; being a man built for others. It’s service above self! When a leader has a solid understanding of these core leadership virtues, then watch out. You’re not only going to reap the benefits from their service to their peers but you’re going to get much more out of that individual because you’ve helped them transform themselves in a way that they never thought possible. You’re now the chief architect in shaping their life. They will see you as an agent of positive change. With the deep respect that this will bring, your leaders will run through a wall for you and others will follow them.

Knowing this, let’s circle back to choosing a quarterback who is capable of being your great leader. When deciding who to invest your time and attention in it becomes very important to choose an athlete who has character. One who doesn’t have to overcome huge obstacles in being highly likeable by his peers. Jeff Trickey of the Trickey-Wright QB Passing School puts it on the T-Shirts they give to kids—“Accept the Risk of Leadership”—because to a young man who hasn’t been trained to be a leader that’s what it is. It’s RISKY! The great news is that we now know Leadership can be taught, therefore minimizing the risk.

We’ve discussed the importance of work ethic, character and leadership when selecting a quarterback worthy of investing your time and effort in as you build your program for consistent high level success. The next character trait is competitiveness. It’s another foundational virtue of a great quarterback. Your quarterback needs to feel like he needs to win every play. Most of the time that simply means getting the play call, establishing control of the huddle or the call at the line of scrimmage, ensuring proper alignment of the offense, successfully executing the exchange and properly handing the ball off to the ball carrier. Oftentimes it requires quite a bit more; passing or running. Passing game aside, it’s important that your quarterback takes pride in handling the huge responsibility of simply running the team. I heard Jim Harbaugh talk one time about quarterback play and he went on and on about the quarterback understanding the importance of “winning the handoff!” It seems simple but it’s true. There is reference in medicine which stems from the Hippocratic Corpus, which says “First Do No Harm”. In other words, don’t make the injured patient worse than he already is. This can be applied to quarterbacks here. Don’t get in the way of a successful play. Get the play call in, the ball snapped on time, handle it properly and put your team in a position to succeed. “Win the handoff!” Here, your quarterback is competing on every play.

A strong competitive spirit is imperative at this position for so many reasons. So many things can and will go wrong during a game but a competitor will tend to have a shorter memory and continue to compete and execute. In the off season, a competitor will challenge himself to put hard work in to focus on the repetitive details that will make him great over time. In addition, as the natural leader on your team, others will find inspiration on the strong work ethic of your quarterback.

“The harder you work and the better you play the more you can demand from others” – John Gruden


When you find the virtues outlined above of work ethic, character, leadership and competitiveness you’ve got yourself a highly coachable quarterback. One who will be a student of the game and is willing to put in the time required to be great both from learning the mental aspect but also by dialing the mechanical aspect into automatic mode.

It’s very important to understand the importance of mechanics when it comes to quarterback play. Think for a moment about combining the complexities of the mechanics, from footwork to throwing to eye discipline and ultimately tying them all together in a split second all while reading and reacting to the opponent’s defense and to your receivers. Suffice it to say, there is a lot of mental processing going on at one time. You have to understand that IF a quarterback’s mechanics are not on autopilot THEN your QB is thinking about mechanics and the all-important reading and reacting part of the game will not take place effectively. Or, IF the reading and reacting is taking place then, there will be a mechanical breakdown and the ball will be thrown off target or off trajectory. Bottom line? Mechanics have to be on auto-pilot which means they are as simple and as passive to the athlete as breathing.

From a mechanical requirement alone, if an athlete isn’t highly dedicated and doesn’t have the work ethic and discipline he probably won’t put in the time required to wire the neuro-muscular pathways well enough to be highly effective at this position. In order to wire them properly, he’ll have to be highly coachable. The only way to accomplish this is being dedicated to the tens of thousands of repetitive motions required. The term for it is ‘neuromuscular programming’ and it all starts with a culture of learning that drive behaviors that eventually shape our habits and results. (Figure 4).

Figure 4

If your Quarterback is a person of high character, then you are at a great starting point because you are building from a very solid foundation. From there he can be taught to be an effective leader capable of connecting with and inspiring others to follow him toward the greater cause of the team… a cause greater than himself.

If you think about the sheer awesomeness of opportunity that being a quarterback and not just playing quarterback can be for a young person and the future life benefits that will follow as a result of this transformation, then you should be excited about being in the position as a coach where you can make such a huge contribution to society! You can also get excited about the predictable success to your program that will follow.

Let the journey begin…

*Wikipedia 12/17/15 Harriet Tubman *Wikipedia 12/17/15 The Holocaust * The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You, John Maxwell, September 1998 * Talent is overrated: What Really Separates World Class Performers from Everyone Else, Geoffrey Colvin 2008

About the Author – Eric Smith is the director of ‘Winning Edge Skills’ where his Mission Statement is: To give aspiring Quarterbacks the proper foundation of Mechanics, Physical & Mental Skills and Leadership Attributes so that they have an opportunity to succeed at the highest level in Football and ultimately in LIFE!!

Eric Smith grew up in Central Michigan. He attended Bowling Green State University where he played Quarterback from 1984 – 1988. Before returning to Football as a coach in 2012 where he discovered his true passion, Eric worked in the Pharmaceutical Industry and for the last 14 years the Real Estate Industry. Throughout his career, Eric had an opportunity to further develop his leadership knowledge through formal training and by serving in various leadership positions. Eric is a partner and certified speaker and trainer with the John C. Maxwell Leadership TEAM. Eric believes that because the sport of football is the best sport for teaching life lessons and transforming young men’s lives in a positive way that “If you can become a Leader in Football…You will be a Leader in LIFE!”

Eric lives in Redding, California with his wife Lisa. He has 2 children Marcus and Madelin

Eric Smith can be reached at – 530.945.4144 / /

0 views0 comments
bottom of page