“The tactician must know what to do whenever something needs doing;
the strategist must know what to do when nothing needs doing.”
– Savielly Tartakover, International Grandmaster
I try to stay away from quotes, but this one from Tartakover is too good to pass up, as it also applies to football. The best football strategists rise to the top “when nothing needs doing” through effective use of bye weeks. In the ACC, for example, Dabo Swinney is 18-3 after a bye week. At the other end of the scale, Manny Diaz has a problem with bye weeks. In his 2nd season as the head coach of Miami, Coach Diaz is 11-7 in the regular season, but has a record of 0-4 in games after a bye week. The only other team in the conference with the same poor record since 2019 is Florida State.
Conventional wisdom says that it is always an advantage to have additional time to prepare for an opponent. However, the statistics show that only a few teams in the ACC have used the bye week to their advantage: Clemson, Notre Dame, and Pittsburgh have gone undefeated after a bye while all the other teams have a win percentage of 60% or worse since 2019. Simply by defeating NC State on November 6th, Manny will put be able to reverse his narrative and put Miami on track to catch the rest of the pack in the ACC. But how?
The practices of chess players who prepare for tournaments may hold the answer for football coaches on bye weeks. In both cases, the primary focus is on mental preparedness rather than physical. As such, these four tips used in chess may also be appropriate for football coaches to maximize their mental preparedness during a bye week:
1) Tactics – In chess, solving tactics problems stimulates the mind, making the player sharper and unleashing dynamic thinking. In football, reviewing game film for tactics problems in prior matchups will have similar benefits.
2) Openings – Chess players and football coaches have sets of opening plays that they use regularly. With additional time to prepare, it is important to review these sets of plays for weaknesses and focus on strengthening them. This is not the same as creating a whole new set of opening plays to trick or the next opponent; instead, the tip is to solidify several variations for the opening series, give the players time to practice and memorize the plays, and call them confidently on gameday.
3) End Game – Reinforcing fundamentals of endgame strategy is critical to winning in chess matches which often ends in a draw during tournaments. In football, teams have practiced drills for the endgame since Johnny Unitas pioneered the two minute offense in the 1950s. A bye week is a great time to go over two and four minute offenses because these drills are fundamental: whether the goal is to score quickly or run out the clock, both are football concepts that are easy to teach but difficult to carry out under pressure without practice.
4) Physical Fitness – Mental preparedness requires physical fitness, and no one knows that better than chess players. Many chess tournaments take hours to compete in and the mind needs a fit body in order to maintain composure. All football fans know that one hour of football time requires four hours of real time to play/coach, and calling an entire football game takes just as much composure as a chess game. During bye weeks, coaches and players both have the chance to refresh their physical fitness with proper rest, diet, and exercise so they get to the field with a mental edge.
None of these tips or suggested actions are groundbreaking: every coach reviews film, prepares their gameplan, and practices drills with the team during bye weeks. What is important is the level of mental preparedness that can be reached during a bye week that is not possible during a normal week of preparation. Following these tips will allow a coach to come out of the bye week with greater tactical thinking, a more polished set of opening plays, and a fundamentally sound team with ready endgame strategies, all while refreshing the physical fitness needed to maintain composure for the entire football game every week for the rest of the season. The key is to use the bye week separately from a normal week of preparation. After winning the bye week, the coaches and the team will be best prepared to resume the normal routine and win the rest of the season.
Chess is cool. Go Canes.