Coach John Beam, the Head Football Coach and Athletic Director for Laney College, has coached twelve players in the National Football League. Under his leadership, Laney College has played in 2 Bowl games and has a 90% scholarship and transfer rate to 4-year colleges. Prior to coaching at the collegiate level, Coach Beam was the Head Football Coach at Skyline High School for 17 years. During that time his program amassed 15 League Championships and 11 Section Championships. In 1997 he was named the California State Coach of the Year and in 2004 he was the National Federation of State High School Association West Sectional Coach of the Year.
Coach Beam’s relationship with the NFL dates back to 1996, beginning with the NFL City Football Summer Camp. Since that time he has served as a Regional Director for the Junior Player Development program both in San Francisco and Oakland and continues to be involved with the High School Player Development program.
PE: When you’re developing talent, what are some of the intangibles that you look for and why?
Coach Beam: I want to see if the athlete is a competitor. I want to know if he's looking for the easy way out or is looking for challenges. This is both in the classroom and on the field. Does the athlete want to be number 1? Will he or she take on the biggest hurdle and attempt to jump it? I don't care if he doesn't make it but I want to see if he attempts to jump it, because then we can work on ways to improve it.
Next, I want to see if the athlete has a work ethic - are they willing to put in the extra time? Or are they just looking for days off? Will they work not only at school and on the practice field or at the weight room, but also at home? Will they do more than the assignment asks? In class will they do the extra credit? Will they ask to be challenged? A work ethic is important. A work ethic costs no money. The start of it comes from within and it can be developed over time in small increments, if the athlete is willing.
The last thing that I look at is I want to see if they have a smile on their face? Are they having fun? Do they enjoy it? If you enjoy something, you do it for the love of the game; for the love of learning. But if you do it only because it's a job or for someone else or some external reason, and not wanting it for yourself, then it's not fun and you're going to want to quit. I want them to have fun in everything they do and to enjoy what they do because it’s a life-long experience.
PE: What are the characteristics of a successful high school football student-athlete on and off the field?
Coach Beam: Number one: does he set goals and reach his goals? Does he reach his potential? Does he live up to his expectations and my expectations? I look to see that people finish what they start. even if it's hard, complete it. Even regarding grades: if maybe a C is the best work they can do, but they've put everything into it, then that's fine. So start something and finish it, and put the best that you have and everything that you have into it.
The ultimate measure of success for me is that the student graduate high school. What an accomplishment. It started when you were six or seven years old and expanded over the next 13 years of your life and you completed it by staying the course, going to class, completing assignments, surrounding yourself with positive people, making a contribution at your school, both on the field and in the classroom, dealing with the hurdles by asking for help, re-setting your goals, etc.! So complete that goal. That's a success - especially in the communities that I work in, where 50% of the young males of color drop out of high school every year.
PE: How do you and your staff begin developing leadership skills in your student-athletes?
Coach Beam: Building leadership in today's community is really hard. A lot of young people don't want to be leaders. They don't want to put themselves out in front. They want to hide within their peer group. No one wants to stand out and actually tell people that they are doing the wrong thing. So it's a struggle every year for us to continually tell people that it's okay to be a leader. Peer pressure is positive if it's used in a positive way.
So we start off with small groups. The groups in football are already built in by position groups, so there are small groups right there and we build leadership within the group by assigning tasks and responsibilities for equipment for drills, lining them up, demonstrating drills, helping to coach and correct drills of their peers, and then cleaning up and putting away equipment after drills and practice. But we're not just looking for one leader, we want everybody in that group to be a leader at some point throughout the season. We want each person to take charge of a drill or fundamental, at some point throughout the season. We want the small responsibilities that they demonstrate in their position groups to flow into the weight room, the locker room and classroom.
A leader is encouraging others to do what's right and telling them when they're doing something wrong. Sometimes right and wrong in the community can be different from what is right or wrong in the school or on the team. Someone has to take a stand. It can't just be the coach. Again positive peer pressure works - showing up on time, finishing your work when the coach is not looking - how do we make that happen? Or, more importantly, letting the coach know if someone in your group didn't go to class or was late to class. This is not snitching, you are actually helping them to help themselves.
A leader is accountable - accountable to his peers, his coaches and to his community.
He takes ownership not only for the good things but also when things go wrong. He's okay to stand up and admit - "I did it. I made a mistake." Mistakes are okay, especially if you own up to them. That's the real key to me.
Responsibility again is key. You must do everything that's on your list of things. Finish homework. Show up to class on time. Bring the book. Those are responsibility ideals, but also if your friend, your teammate, your peer has forgotten something - hey, maybe you have an extra pencil in your bag, or you have some paper and you can share notes with them, or maybe you organize study groups and all are accountable to show up because you want to help each other to be successful.
PE: What advice would you give to a parent/guardian who is assisting his/her child with the college search process?
Coach Beam: The first thing I tell parents and student athletes is that the decision they are making is not just for now - the decision they are making is for four years or most likely for five years and the outcome of that decision is going to be for the rest of your life. It's going to be a career, so take your time. Don't act hastily. Get all the information that you can. Use the Internet. Take tours. Talk to your coach. Talk to other people that have been through the process.
At my high school - Skyline High School - I would bring in former players that had been through this process to talk to a group of student athletes to tell them how the process went - the good things, the bad things, but also some of the mistakes that they had made, so that the next group, the next generation, wouldn't make the same mistake.
I think it's important that the athlete and the parents make a list - a list of criteria with questions that they want answered by each college and keep the list the same so that it doesn't change from college to college because that list has to be the same so you can compare apples to apples, not apples to oranges. On this list, what is important could be the following considerations: Are you okay being five hours away on a plane ride or even five hours on a drive away so that your parents can see you? Do you understand that once you go across the country, you may not be able to come home except for only at Christmas time and at the end of the year? Are you okay enough to be far away from family and friends? Does the school that you choose have a support network for you - a support net that will fill in for your parents, your coaches and your friends when things are tough for you, because trust me - as a freshman things will be tough.
I tell student athletes to look at their major because it is important that they gear their path to a college that has their major, but not to rule out places that don't have their specific major but may offer something else close to it. Most college students, whether they are athletes or not, will change their major two or three times so it's not as critical to choose the specific major - but do they have the support there for you at the college to help you make these choices? If the student athlete is from the inner city, are they okay going to a rural area or out into the country? Is there going to be snow? In California, most of my athletes have never seen the snow. Are they okay with going where there might be 3 or 4 feet of snow or rain, or the weather is below zero? Or how about when it's really hot? These are considerations because you are going to be there and can you function in that type of environment? I think most young people are adaptable and it's not that big of a deal but they still should think about it.
Last, and this is tough on parents - do they understand that the parents' criteria or choices for school may differ from their son's or their daughter's? So, remember, it's your son or daughter's life. They are the ones going to live it. As their parent, you want to guide them and you want to support them, but you cannot live it for them.
PE: What is something every incoming freshman should know as they transition into high school athletics?
Coach Beam: This is a bigger environment. You are no longer at a youth league. Grades matter here. Eligibility matters. Also, the grades you get as a freshman are going to now count. This is for real. Grades count towards your college admission and your college scholarship.
Next, even though it's going to be big and new, don't be afraid to take on the challenge. Don't be afraid to compete. Find out the resources at the school. Ask for help. The number one problem I find is freshmen are afraid to ask for help. Look at the seniors, the juniors. Look for guidance. That's where leadership comes in and hopefully the seniors and sophomores are helping the freshman to navigate their way through. Some freshmen may come in and find out they have a learning disability. That's okay. Get help. We all need help at some point. It's not something to shy away from. Take on new challenges. I've always told my athletes to take on something new - try something new - hey, maybe drama or music or journalism. Don't just stay away from those classes because they are different and you never had him but see if that is something you want to get into. At the community college, where I am now, they get to try all kinds of different things so I tell them, hey what about philosophy class, or speech, biology, or maybe accounting or animation? Try something new. Where are your talents at? They may be hidden and they'll come out if you try something.
Always surround yourself with people that think like you - positive people, not people who pull you down. If that group of people is not going to class every day, then don't be with them. As a freshman you're going to look to want to belong. Belong to the right group. Again this is where senior leadership and juniors come in. They should be helping freshmen to pick the right ways to do things, to be with the right people, and shelter them from bad influences.
PE: How do you create a healthy culture within your locker room?
Coach Beam: First it starts with leadership. The healthy culture in the locker room should be the healthy culture that you see on your field and in your classrooms. Your senior leadership should help set that up. We as coaches list rules and expectations in the locker room. But it is the players' locker room. We're not in there all the time. We as coaches need to monitor and come in but I want our players who are in there every day to be responsible. The player leadership needs to help to make sure it's clean, and make sure there's no hazing or bullying, and make sure everybody feels comfortable in there, being themselves and respecting each other's personal space.
In our locker room, just like with the position groups, we assign lockers based by position groups so we have small groups that already know each other and will police their own area. As I tell our players, when I come in there's a set way the lockers should look at the end of every practice. If not then I will talk to the leaders and we will figure out why that didn't happen and fix it and remedy it. And there's got to be consequences at the end of the day, but that's not something I want to really deal with. I want the leadership within the locker room to do it and it starts off on the team and at the school campus itself. Peer pressure is a positive if used right.
PE: How have you seen the student-athlete experience evolve of the years?
Coach Beam: Today it's tough. Kids look on the Internet. They watch TV, they see all these different things. A lot of it is negative out there. Social media allows athletes to see and be seen by others all over the country. Because of this exposure, people are starting to become more individualistic, and doing actions that bring more attention to themselves. It's good to be an individual but in a team sport we still have to put the team first. Also, a lot of people that we see on TV are much older. As a high school student you are 15 or 16 years old, trying to emulate what is seen on media. I think they can get exposed too soon and are vulnerable to mistakes.
Today colleges want young people to commit younger and younger - people in the 11th grade or even the sophomore year. I think for me as a coach that I want my player to play their whole high school career before they have to make a decision. I want my players to be able to take their five official trips, to be able to look at schools, and to really compare them. The way it is now, if your family comes from a background without a lot of money, it's hard to go out and see these different schools unofficially, and they have to pay for those visits themselves. You can do Internet searches but it's not the same as visiting. So I wish the NCAA would make it so student athletes cannot be offered scholarships until their senior year. I think that would be more beneficial, because they are more mature at that time. How can they make a decision at 16 that's hard enough to make at 18?
I think the other drawback with all the media attention, social networking and the internet, is parents and other adults. These adults have lost focus as well. They are looking out there and seeing what other people are doing, and wondering why their son or daughter is not doing that. Let your son or daughter experience high school sports. Let them experience the camaraderie; the social acceptance of being a part of a team, and winning and being part of the school and community fabric. Don't worry about the big exposure. That will come. If you are a good enough player, colleges will find you.
And don't forget, there is community college. Community college can be another step of maturity both on the field and off the field, in the classroom, and also socially.