BC107: Hal Wasson | Building a Winning High School Football Program | Championship Culture #Pillar2

This week’s guest is one of the top high school football coaches in the nation.  Hal Wasson has been the head football coach at Southlake Carroll in Southlake, TX, since 2007.  The Dragons are widely recognized as a top high school football program and annually find themselves ranked in the top 25 nationally and competing for a Texas high school football state championship.  In this podcast Wasson shares how he develops a championship culture, an elite mindset and a one-play-at-a-time mentality within his program.  He also shares advice for fathers who are coaching their sons.

You can follow Coach Wasson and Southlake Carroll HS Football @SLCDragonFB.

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Cain: Hey how are you doing? Brian Cain your Peak Performance Coach here with the Peak Performance Podcast. Today I’m super fired up to have our guest Hal Wasson. Hal is the head football coach of the Carroll Dragon football program in Southlake, Texas, one of the most sought after clinicians and speakers on program building, culture building, and winning at the highest level of high school football.

Coach Wasson thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to join us here on the podcast.

Wasson: I’m really happy to be here, Brian. I’m feeding off your energy right now. I’m excited to just be around you today.

Cain: Awesome. Well I’m glad you’re here. The feeling is mutual. If you would could you give our listeners kind of your background in terms of where you played football and then how you got to be the head football coach here at Southlake Carroll.

Wasson: Well you know it’s a journey. It was a long process. I grew up in a small town in East Texas – Kerens, Texas. I was a multisport guy. I played all four sports in my high school. You played the sports, you were in the band, student council, beta club, all those things. I graduated from high school. Obviously I thought was better than what I was and I jumped into a junior college. I played a couple years at Navarro Junior College. I was fortunate to be on a couple of championship teams. I parlayed that into finishing out at Abilene Christian University where I played a couple of years and was ready to conquer the world.

Initially I didn’t think about coaching. I was thinking about the business world. We all want to make money right Brian? But the closer I got to graduation I realized my passion is kids. It’s being around kids and developing relationships and trying to get guys to reach their full potential. So I changed majors in mid stream.

I got my first coaching job at Groesbeck, Texas, actually as a head baseball coach and assistant football. I met the love of my life, my wife Sally. She was a cheerleader at the University of Houston. I had an opportunity to come to the metroplex area as a varsity coach and realized I wasn’t getting any prettier. So I jumped in and went to Kingwood High School as an assistant football coach. I spent that year to let her graduate, we got married, then believe it or not the next move was as a head track coach/assistant football.

I realized I was kind of spinning. I wanted to get in the best program possible. At that time I actually took a demotion as far as a varsity job to a freshman job. I got into Corsicana. I was elevated to a varsity coach after a year or so. That is when my journey really began because being in that quality of a program I got the opportunity to be the head coach at Italy High School, a little two-way school. I was there a couple of years. Then I got the opportunity to be an athletic director and a head football coach at San Saba. We were fortunate to win there and made a move to a couple of other places, a little bit bigger schools, AD, AD head football coach. Every move I made I made so many great relationships, met a lot of great people, and from each place I learned a little bit more about myself, I learned a lot more about how to build a program.

I did that journey obviously blessed with a couple of beautiful kids. Chase and Chelsea were born during all those journeys. We made the transition after a few years. My son was going to be a sophomore in high school. We had the opportunity to come to Southlake Carroll as a position guy. I got out of head coaching after 16 years because I believe as long as you keep your priorities in order good things will happen. It wasn’t about me. My family had moved – as you can tell – all over the place. I really wanted to put my kids in a great environment as far as academics and athletics go. We chose Southlake Carroll. My son played here a couple of years. My daughter went to school here and graduated from here. We won a state championship there with my son as the senior quarterback.

I had a fabulous year. I worked there with Coach Todd Dodge. After we won that championship I had the great opportunity to go to Keller Fossil Ridge as the head football coach – again getting back on what my passion was (head coaching). I did that after. After 4-5 years there Coach Dodge took the head job at the University of North Texas and because I was here understanding the (here’s that key word) culture of the Dragon Nation I had the opportunity to come back here at Carroll as the head football coach in 2007. My wife and daughter stayed here at school. My wife taught here during that tenure at Fossil Ridge – which I am greatly indebted to Keller Fossil Ridge for allowing me to get back into the head coaching avenue.

So good things happened because I was in the right place at the right time around the right people trying to make good choices. It’s been an incredible journey and I am just so excited to be a head football coach at Southlake Carroll.

Cain: I want to make sure that we definitely talk about the Dragon Nation and that culture that is created (that you’ve created) in that program. Before we go there you mentioned that you coached your son Chase who was a quarterback and his senior year they won a state championship and he was Texas High School Football 5A Player of the Year. Is that correct?

Wasson: That is correct.

Cain: Talk a little bit if you would because we don’t often get the chance to – now you weren’t the head coach when he was playing right? You were an assistant coach. But talk about fathers coaching their kids and what advice would you give to the parents that are doing that.

Wasson: That is a great question. My wife was a great referee in all this because as dads we want to be the best we can be. We’re lathered up, we’re fired up. It wasn’t an easy transition. My son was a quarterback as a sophomore in high school at a smaller school. We moved into a great program at Southlake Carroll. They had a great quarterback. He changed positions. He played a couple other positions which was a very valuable experience for him because he learned a lot of other – there are a lot of moving parts to having a great team. So his senior year he moved back to quarterback. He didn’t play it at all his junior year. This is pivotal in our deal.

I remember the spring ball I didn’t think he was as good as he needed to be. That father/son, we always expect them to be way above the charts. It’s a Sunday morning and Coach Dodge said “hey you let me handle this, don’t get on him about this or that.” Well we’re at the breakfast table and I just quirked one of those “you know Chase if you don’t get a lot better we’re not going to win a lot of football games next year.” Well my wife, as mothers do, put her foot down. She said “you’ve always told me we don’t do this stuff at home, leave it at the practice field, leave it at the field house.” So I learned real quick you always want to please who? The moms. You want to please the moms. So I backed off.

We rocked along there. Had a good summer. Great things started happening. Then the next conversation we had was we always had personal goals, filled those out, team goals (in other words you had a vision going in), and Chase let me read his believe it or not. I take that back he didn’t let me read it. It was on his desk up in his room and I just passed up the room and I saw it. I said “Chase you’ve got to be kidding me, you want to be 5A All-State quarterback, throw for all these yards, rush for all these yards, you envision yourself as the player of the year and your team goal is to win a State Championship.” Mind you we had just moved up for 4A to 5A. I said “let’s be realistic.” He looks at me dead serious and he says “dad if you don’t believe in yourself where are you going to get?” I said “great point.” He said “this is going to happen, I’ve seen it happen, I’ve played this all through my mind for two years. I told you when I was in the fifth grade the first State Championship you would bring home as a football coach I would be the quarterback and that is what was going to happen.”

Just to backtrack briefly. The coach from Mexia, where I had stopped, called me literally that summer and said “hey I got you a job.” I’m looking in the desk and in the desk it was carved out “dad I will win a state championship my senior year.” That is what he said in the fifth grade.

Cain: Wow.

Wasson: On the footnote of that I told my wife and I tell any young coach now, I told my son “you never call me Coach Wasson, I am your dad, 24/7 I am your dad. With that being said I am going to coach you harder and be tougher on you than anybody else in that locker room. I want you to understand that that is going to be tough love. But you never call me anything other than ‘dad.’”

Obviously he never called me anything. It wasn’t “dad” or “coach.” But I tell you what I would not trade for those times. It was an unbelievable journey and my son has really been a great mentor to me about positive approach. Believe in yourself. You are only as good as you think you’re going to be. However that’s easily said. It takes a lot of work to get there.

Cain: And you’ve done a tremendous amount of work both as an assistant and now as a head coach in terms of creating a championship culture with the Dragon Nation. I mean looked at as maybe the marquee in premier high school football program in the country. The first game I went to moving here to Texas two years ago you guys are playing a school from Tulsa, Oklahoma in Cowboy Stadium. There are 30,000 people there. I’ve got goose bumps all over my body talking about it. It was unbelievable.

What is the Dragon Nation? You talk about Dragons in the culture. What is that?

Wasson: It’s hard to define. In simple terms it’s simply committed to excellence, being the very best you can be every day. As we know that is a very difficult process. It’s hard to do. Sometimes you have to fake it till you make it. That culture is something that has been here from the Bob Ledbetter days through the Todd Dodge days.

I will tell you, Brian, in today’s world it’s harder to keep that culture just because of stuff. There are so many outside distractions, things that are happening so fast and furious. There are so many things that could distract a young man. But I have been very blessed here. This is an unbelievable community, an unbelievable school district that is very passionate and committed to excellence not only in athletics but more significantly in academics. They put a premium on being the best you can be every day and that helps us tremendously as coaches.

Cain: Talk a little bit about the culture and the system that you have, Dragons. Having been a part of your football camp last year where you starting with the kids who are coming up that are in kindergarten or in second grade and you’re training them in the culture of Dragons so that when they get to the high school level it’s not something new. It’s something that they’re ingrained in. The Dragon logo is the same logo for every school in the district from K-12. Talk a little bit about Dragons and those core principles or core values that you instill in the guys in the football program.

Wasson: That is a great thing. I’m not giving you tremendous accolades here but I’m going to give you a pat on the back because you changed the way I look at things a lot too. We don’t want to be too wordy and have too many signs out there, too many things that they have to think about. I know it starts with drill work. Everything we do is Dragon Pride. Well what does pride mean to us? Personal responsibility and daily excellence. If we ingrain that in our guys when we hear “pride” that’s what it means. That is another hard thing to do.

The things that we came in – Dragons are significant to us because we don’t see Dragons, we see the D for discipline. That is what we see. When we see the R in Dragons we see trust. When we see the A in Dragons we see attitude. We see all those things that come out for us. Obviously the S is for being selfless. Successful programs are selfless programs. Successful relationships are selfless relationships.

What does the world teach us to be? It’s all about me. The world teaches it me and all of us today to be selfish and it’s all about me. How can I get to the top the fastest? Who do I have to walk over? How many counts can I go to to make me better?

It’s about TEAM. We all know that acronym – together everyone achieves more. But our core values are distinct and through focusing on what you can control you can get to that destination.

Cain: When you come into your complex and you walk in your see the state championship pictures on the wall, you see the state players of the year on the wall. There is a sign right before you walk into the indoor complex that says “one play one day at a time.” Talk a little bit if you would about the importance of the mental game of football and that one-play-at-a-time approach.

Wasson: That is a great question because as a young coach when I first got my head job it was all about Xs and Ox. Go, go, go. Lots of reps, lots of reps, lots of reps. That’s all significant, but I learned a long time ago (and it has been really ingrained in me in the last few years) that we invest so much time in the physical aspect of the game but when someone asks you a real simple question “how important is the mental aspect” and you say “man it’s huge,” “well how much time are you investing in the mental part,” you say “well we talk about it five minutes after practice maybe a couple days a week here and there.”

This changed our approach now because we invest a minimal 20-30 minutes a day in mental preparation. When you really take that concept and gravitate to it you choose at that moment to start really focusing on the things that you can control and not on the things you can control. That is a waste of time and energy. How important is energy on a football team? Huge. If you’ve wasted all of it on stuff and not things of significance then you’re wasting your time.

Cain: One of the things that totally impressed me last year about what you would do is in the mornings before school in Texas – for the listeners outside of the state of Texas who are unaware they have an opportunity here called “athletic period” where every day as the football coach you get to see your kids year round. Why every state in the country doesn’t do that I have no idea. I think it’s a genius opportunity for connection with students in the school that have a passion for the same thing you have passion for – in this case football – and you get to train them physically, mentally, character leadership.

One of the things you did everyday is you trained mindset. What are some of those key principles? You mentioned controlling what you can control, your championship culture. How do you every day, Coach, come up with that content to deliver to them in that morning meeting where you are developing what I would call the morning mindset meeting?

Wasson: Well another great question. I left this out: excellence. What is the definition? What does excellence look like? We start with doing very common things like blocking, tackling, lifting weights, running, everybody does that. But our start is we do it with uncommon energy, we do it with an uncommon attitude about the way we go about things. Again, we control our effort. We control our energy or attention to detail. That is where it starts.

We take (say) the word discipline. We’ll use it and maybe spend a week or two depending on where our team is (that is where we have to gravitate as coaches). First of all you have to know who is your team? What is the team makeup? It may mean “we need some discipline, we need more discipline,” and we’ll take a daily occurrence. It may be something that comes up in the NFL on an NFL team or collegiate team or high school team where a guy has had a discipline issue. We’ll use common things that they read about.

We know this, as long as you bring honor to your football program and your family name your life is pretty simple. If you dishonor your family name or dishonor your program your life gets really complicated. Brian, we like simple. We try to keep it simple. But we’ll take the discipline part and define it. What does it look like? What does it taste like? Who are teams that have discipline? Who are programs? Who are players? Then use those current events and incorporate them into where we are in the particular week.

Cain: So you’re kind of always in research mode (is what I would call it).

Wasson: No doubt.

Cain: Research mode where you’re looking for things to help reinforce your championship culture. When we talk about Dragon DNA there was a poster that you had created that went up into every single classroom in the entire district. Every kid that was playing football in the Dragon Nation from peewee at six years old up until varsity and high school had the same exact poster – which we’ll put out here on social media as people look at and see this podcast. It lists the Dragon DNA.

You already mentioned discipline. When they see the R in Dragon they see trust. When they see the A they think attitude. The G they see toughness. Could you talk a little bit about toughness and kind of that embracing and overcoming all challenges? That is what football is is just one challenge after another after another.

Wasson: It really is. Adversity: some people say “well adversity builds character.” We look at it as adversity reveals your character. That’s a mindset. It’s going to reveal. When it’s 105 degrees out there it’s not easy. We literally do lessons about the mental toughness part and the things you can control. How do you prepare for the heat? How do you prepare for the rain? How do you prepare for things you can’t control? It’s all mental toughness.

I know one week in toughness we were using things like an oak tree and a palm tree where an oak tree will snap when adverse storms hit. You ever wonder why they don’t put oak trees near the beach? That is why they put palm trees, because they can bend.

One year we had a great quarterback in Kenny Hill. As coaches (as you just alluded to) you research things. They think we’re rocket scientists but you look up and, man, a seven day forecast has wind and rain. Well in a pass-happy offense wind and rain normally aren’t good for pass-happy offenses.

We’re playing a great team. It’s about the third or fourth round of the playoffs. We’re down 21-0, had not had a first down, and there are two minutes or less to go in the half. The quarterback is frustrated, everybody is frustrated, and an old guy that was kind of our mental conditioning coach said “you’ve got to have some mechanism as a coach whether it’s drink a cup of water and wad that cup up and trash it,” I was having to do a lot of that that night because I was about ready to twist off.

Cain: Bottle, release, and flush it.

Wasson: Bottle and release, that’s right. So Kenny comes off the field and I said “Kenny right now it’s not going our way. Tell me what the theme of the week has been all week.” He says “Coach adjust your sails, what does that have to do with anything?” I said “brother it’s time to adjust your sails because we can’t control the wind, we can’t control some of the breaks we’ll get, but what we can control is the next play.”

Literally this is the craziest thing and it really transformed our program. It’s one of those moments in time where we get our team over there and said “now is the time to adjust those sails, there are 42 seconds to go in the half now (as I recall), we’re 65 yards away from paydirt.” Kenny draws back and launches a perfect 48 yard strike to an open receiver and we go down 21-7. The kids come off the field running. You have those spaces in time that are suspended. They’re all running. “Adjust your sails! Adjust your sails!” We go in at halftime and that’s all the chant was, “adjust your sails!” We go in there and I’m going “hey guys I don’t have anything to say, you know the routine, it’s one play at a time, you’ve got to make a couple adjustments.”

Long story short we won the game going away by a couple of touchdowns. The kids came by. That was one of those rallying moments. They said “Coach now it’s all coming together, it’s all how you view things.”

Cain: That is awesome. Toughness to embrace the adversity but having something to go to in terms of creating a mindset of like the palm tree of bend but never break. Or adjust your sails and make adversity your advantage is something I’ve heard you say a lot.

Wasson: That is the toughest part. What do we live in today? We live in a soft world. We really do. We’ve all got air conditioning. We have instantaneous communication, instantaneous travel. We could be anywhere we want to be. That is what I love so much. I think football is the greatest team sport because there are so many moving parts and the toughness comes into fruition so many times because you are going to have to handle adversity. It’s not always going to go your way. Are you going to crack and pop every time it doesn’t go your way? As we all know, Brian, that’s a long tedious journey too. As you alluded we get these guys when they’re young and start disciplining those guys towards the toughness aspect of the game. It’s huge.

Cain: You also talk about in Dragons it’s the discipline, the trust, the attitude, the toughness, the work ethic, and the confidence that helps you to be selfless and put team over me. When you talk about building toughness and creating discipline through work ethic which will give you confidence – think about the Dragonmaker, maybe the most grueling physically demanding conditioning in all of high school football. What is the Dragonmaker?

Wasson: That is where – we never assume (keyword: assume) anything. I know everybody thinks “I put on the Dragon jersey and I’m the next _____ guy,” the All-State guy or the state champion guy. We tell them going in “we’re going to have this big pot and everybody is going to go into the same pot and we’re going to start creating our identity, our team, and it’s not going to be easy” because we all know confidence can be and is a learned behavior. You choose to be confident or you choose unfortunately not to be. Obviously it’s hard to be confident when you’re not being productive. We’re all about what? The end product. The results. Well how are you going to get there? Through the conditioning of the Dragonmaker.

The Dragonmaker – we could talk for two days on the Dragonmaker. It’s a boot camp (more or less) where you start earning your stripes. We have obviously a lot of stuff we have developed: a peer group council. It’s not necessarily the star player who is in there or the guy that you think is going to be the captain. It’s guys that need to be a leader that aren’t. We’re all acclimatizing ourselves to our culture.

Obviously we know the culture is the feeling we want to have every time we walk in that building. That doesn’t mean we all have to go to the movie together. We don’t really have to like each other outside the building. But when we come in that building we’ve all got to have the same mindset, have the same goal, have the same vision. It goes back to what you’re saying: one day, one play, one game at a time, not trying to jump ahead.

Dragonmaker kind of overwhelmed me the first time because when you come to Southlake they’re not talking about “who are we playing in district, who is the bi-district game,” it’s “who do you think we’ll play for state.” You’re like whoa that is overwhelming. There is a lot of stuff that has to happen. We break it down in Dragonmaker. What is our goal? Well I know that. Our goal is to win simply the next game. Well I know exactly what Tulsa Union looks like. I know what that looks like. What is your vision? Well it’s real simple Coach, to win the last game. That condenses everything right there.

We start with those principles in Dragonmaker through a lot of speed. Everything is structured, organized, disciplined on command. Basically you’re in the weight room 15 minutes. It’s high rep, high volume, everybody is lathered up screaming, hollering, yelling. One guy is not verbalizing anything because if you haven’t noticed in today’s world everybody is texting and they don’t know how to verbalize. Well if you don’t verbalize there is a consequence. “Coach I’m just a quiet guy.” Well good. Your whole team is going to be punished for it because we can’t win unless we’re communicating.

You’ve got to get out of your comfort zone in Dragonmaker. You’ve got to force yourself. You’ve got to act differently than you feel. That is what you have to do. Through that and then going out in the indoor and (by the way) Thunderdome it’s nothing but pushups and sit-ups. It’s real simple but it everybody is not in unison guess who is – there are consequences. We don’t use punishments. There are consequences for not being in unison. Then after 20 minutes we’re out in the indoor and it’s anything from foot fire to agility drills to mat drills. High octane brother. I mean we are lathered up. The music is playing. It’s loud and tempo. If it ever gets quiet there is no doubt there is a consequence.

Dragonmaker can go seven days. It can go 28 days. We don’t skip anything until we feel as a coaching staff and that peer group council – and they’re tough on themselves – “Coach we’re ready to move on.” “Well good. We don’t think you’re ready just yet.” So normally it depends on teams but we’ve had them go four weeks and we’ve had them go 10 days. We are creating that culture. There are no shortcuts and we don’t take any shortcuts. It’s hard.

Cain: Awesome Coach. I know you’ve got to fly here so we’ve got just one more question for you if you could. The million dollar question – which I’m sure you are aware of – is what do you know now about creating a culture that you wish you knew when you were just getting started as a football coach?

Wasson: Wow. That’s powerful because it’s all the way you view things. I’ve learned this and I’ve learned it the hard way: no one can make you feel any differently unless you allow them to make you feel that way. You can never win enough football games. I get it. You can never win enough. But you can control how you approach things. You can control how you feel about yourself. You’ve got to really put the blinders on about what everybody else thinks of you or what just happened that last play.

I’ll tell you, Brian, that is another story. I spent too much time focusing on the last game or the last play and it just beat me up all week. Well who controls that? Guess what? I do. I control how I feel. It’s hard. I’ll tell you, Brian, for an older coach (I’m not going to say old coach), a veteran, seasoned guy, I kept saying “I’m smarter than this, I’ve got to figure out a way.”

That’s when I came into the mental conditioning part. What do we want to do? You start looking at the Alabamas or the Ohio States or the TCs, those guys that are consistently – “man how do they consistently do things the right way?” Everyone I talked to said “we really focus on mental conditioning.” Well I’m smart enough to know if it works for them it can work for us.

I think you have to change your mindset as a coach. You have to tweak your approach a little bit. That doesn’t mean you discontinue or take away from fundamentals (blocking, tackling, lifting) but what you can – and it’s truly investing. I tell our guys everyday “you walk in this building I don’t want you to think ‘man I have to lift weights today, I have to go watch a video today’ but ‘man I get to do that stuff.” It changes the way you feel. It changes the way you view things.

The mental approach, I think, at the end of the day – I tell our players “I don’t know how it works for you, I know what it’s done for me personally, every day is a new challenge, every play is a new challenge, it takes toughness, it takes mental discipline to snap and move on to that next play.” That separates the good teams from the great teams, the elite teams and elite players from the good ones. It’s just that little bit.

You see them every day on TV, you can watch them in high school football. That is why I’m so blessed, Brian, to be here. Our kids are very – they’ve got a lot of stuff (they really do, they’re blessed) but they really invest in the mental part of the game, things they can control. It’s really hard when everybody else is telling you as a player “man you’re better than that guy, you should be playing.” Well can you sort of trust your coach? You either do or don’t. If you choose to block that out you can become an elite team and a better football player. More importantly, Brian, you are going to become a better person. You are going to have a better relationship. You’re going to love your wife better. You are going to be more selfless. You are going to be more approachable because people are going to feed off your energy. It’s going to be a feeding frenzy is what it’s going to be.

I’d better slow down because I’m about to get fired up and get ready to play. It’s always great being here around you, Brian, because I’m feeding off you brother.

Cain: Well, Coach, I appreciate you making time out of your hectic schedule here to come over. I think there is one thing that you just hit in terms of Alabama does it, Florida State does it, Ohio State does it, the Dragons do it. The best leaders – and we are sitting here with one of the best leaders in all of high school athletics – leaders play follow the leader. If you are listening to this podcast I hope you follow some of the leadership and the culture strategies and some of the mindset building techniques that Coach Wasson shared with us here today. Coach, it’s been an honor. Thank you for joining us here on the Peak Performance Podcast.

Wasson: Thanks for having me Brian.