I’ll be honest: When I first read that first-time head coach Nathaniel Hackett had hired John Vieira, an instructional designer, onto his Broncos coaching staff, I thought it was just another one of those mysterious and vague job titles that pop up all over NFL front offices—and usually have nothing to do with what that person actually does, if they do anything at all. According to Albert Breer in Sports Illustrated, Hackett planned to bring Vieira with him wherever he landed as a head coach after Vieira helped him sell his offensive schemes to players in Green Bay. Over at NBC Sports, Peter King wrote that bringing on Vieira was all about reaching younger players.
Vieira’s a great example of teaching people how to reach Gen Z and engage with players so they’ll soak in the learning, as Hackett told me. “At first, everyone thought, who the hell is this guy? John wondered, ‘Am I gonna have enough work?’ Then they saw my first team meeting with the presentation John created, with graphics popping off the screen, and video of a basketball game with our guys’ heads on the players. And everybody was like, Whoa. That opened up the floodgates. I walked by his office the next day and there’s two coaches in there telling him what they want for their meeting.
“Learning’s about inspiration. It’s about keeping things fresh. In a long season, you gotta continually do that.”Peter King, NBC Sports
Even after reading those descriptions of Vieira’s work, I still didn’t understand it as a full-time job in the NFL. So he makes fancy PowerPoints?
But then I started thinking about how bored NFL players look in every shot from inside a meeting room that I have ever seen on HBO’s Hard Knocks. Even when their coach is screaming at them at full volume, these players look bored. You know what I’m talking about: the glazed expression and the slumped-shoulder body language that says, Are we done here yet?
In fact, the only times that I recall seeing an NFL player look alive in a meeting room are the rookie talent shows, so maybe this isn’t such a strange concept after all.
In 2018, Jim Mora’s characterization of quarterback Josh Rosen as a millennial was the first time I remember hearing about a change in NFL learning styles. “He needs to be challenged intellectually so he doesn’t get bored. He’s a millennial. He wants to know why,” Mora told King.
At the time, the description was controversial among NFL teams and caused a real stir about Rosen’s “character” as teams debated drafting him. How dare Rosen question a coach’s instruction? But that phrase has popped up again and again since. Players in today’s NFL want to know why they are being coached to do something. Simply telling them to do it without an explanation—beyond the implied “I am your coach, therefore everything I say goes”—isn’t enough anymore. As Breer noted in his article about how things are going in Denver between new coach Hackett and new quarterback Russell Wilson, “What they’ve learned about Wilson, in turn, is that he needs the why on everything.” Or perhaps, today’s NFL players would simply like learning the playbook to not suck.
After I tweeted my surprise that an instructional designer works for an NFL team, I started hearing from a bunch of IDs for other companies. It turns out that, while ID might be new to the NFL, it is very common in other industries. I searched for the job title “instructional designer” on LinkedIn and turned up more than a hundred jobs in my area, with colleges and banks and healthcare providers. One ID reached out to me, Luke Hobson, a senior instructional designer and program manager at MIT, and we spoke over Twitter. Hobson, who has a doctorate in educational leadership, said that, yes, it is a real job that goes back to World War II and figuring out how to train troops in a cohesive manner. The field, he said, recently saw a burst in popularity when the COVID-19 pandemic pushed remote learning to the forefront.
“The most significant part is understanding how people learn. Using this knowledge, I partner with a subject matter expert (SME), in order to create an engaging and meaningful learning experience,” Hobson said. “These experiences need to be transparent and clear behind the ask so students can see how they are going to achieve their goals and outcomes and understand why we are asking them to do something.”
That tracks with what Hackett told Breer, who wrote that the remote aspect of the 2020 season is what originally drove him to get back in touch with his college friend and ask Vieira how best to teach his Packers players over Zoom. He liked what Vieira did so much that he brought him onto his Denver staff full-time.
But this isn’t the first time someone has told NFL teams that they need help communicating with younger players. Last year, King wrote about a seminar put on by the NFL agency Athletes First, which included Brian Polian as a speaker. Polian, who is now LSU’s special teams coordinator, wrote a book about this topic, called Coaching and Teaching Generation Z: Honoring the Relationships. King reported that Seattle general manager John Schneider attended the seminar and at least one NFL team asked Polian to come speak to their coaches.
In his book, Polian writes about how tech-driven this generation is, with players who grew up with phones in their hands constantly. “You can have an incredibly meaningful conversation with a player now via text message, a conversation that player would not have with you in person. You may not like it, but this is the way it is, and you’re going to live in this world and try to win in this world, you’ve got to communicate in this world.”Peter King, Sports Illustrated
NFL teams are always searching for an edge. Though they appear to be quite late to this education innovation, I expect see this job title popping up all over the league in the near future—especially if Hackett’s Broncos win.