Current Events

How The Miami Dolphins Are Reinventing NFL Onboarding

Football Training
Written by Lenny DeFranco

First impressions are key, in life and at work. That’s why onboarding is one of the most important learning events in the employee life-cycle. A good onboarding program introduces fresh hires to the mission, history, and culture they’ll share with their new coworkers. By treating onboarding as a learning event, organizations welcome their new team members by providing confidence and alignment. That’s how people hit the ground running.

Of all the places you’d expect a learning-centric model of onboarding to resonate, the least likely would be an industry whose employees literally do hit the ground running: the National Football League. In the hard-nosed world of pro football, the psychological comfort of new employees is not traditionally a priority. The NFL is a ruthlessly results-based culture in which no job is safe and employee churn is a fact of life. When rookies join a team for the first time, they’re expected to prove themselves, not take time to build confidence.

As some teams are realizing, that model may not make a lot of sense. After all, football is a business in which elite talent is lottery-hard to find and impossible to replace. It’s a business whose employees risk calamity every time they step onto the field, even if just to participate in the mini-camps that give rookies a first taste of NFL action. For new players, these on-field stresses are only compounded by the rush of public scrutiny, big money, and unyielding stress that comes with turning pro. Suddenly, the question seems more reasonable: why not take a little better care of rookies when they first show up?

2009_Miami_Dolphins

Adjusting to life in the spotlight can be as challenging for some rookies as playing at the NFL’s elite level.

To the Miami Dolphins, that makes all the sense in the world. This weekend, first-year head coach Adam Gase broke with decades of NFL tradition and hosted his team’s draft picks and undrafted free agents in a mini-camp with no pads, footballs, or practice—just informational, culture-building learning sessions that acquainted the rookies with their new lives.

“Dolphins rookies [spent] all their time during this minicamp in classroom sessions learning how to be Miami Dolphins,” reported the Miami Herald. Players attended “life-labs” on nutrition, sports science, financial planning, and dealing with the media. In other sessions, they immersed in the complex team playbook they’ll be expected to digest.

For as radical as Gase’s learning-centric camp has been labeled, it was actually a pretty logical move. It’s not like the Dolphins lost anything by opting for a classroom-only onboarding experience. True, they didn’t get to invite (and then cut) the walk-ons that NFL teams typically use to fill out their rookie camp rosters.  But in return, they didn’t expose their new players, many of whom the coaches already knew extensively, to the kind of unnecessary injury risk that last year claimed Jacksonville’s first-round draft pick for the season. (Actually, the injury risk in rookie camp is higher than it is in a normal practice.)

A learning-oriented onboarding program can help new players more quickly absorb a complicated NFL playbook

A learning-oriented onboarding program helps new players absorb a complicated NFL playbook.

Rookies got to experience their new organizational culture firsthand, without fighting through a gaggle of undrafted free agents trying to hit hard enough to get noticed. They got valuable training designed to help them conquer the learning curves of both life as a pro and an NFL playbook. “Outside of avoiding injury,” NFL.com’s Conor Orr wrote, “it also avoided the ‘firehose’ effect as some coaches call it—the act of hurling a ton of information at rookies in a short period of time during training camp.” Nothing puts new employees in a position to contribute like making learning as digestible as possible.

Maybe most importantly, the 18 players in attendance got a message loud and clear from the organization: we expect a lot of you, but we’re invested in your success. Football fans see this type of confidence-building tactic most frequently when coaches publicly stand by their embattled quarterbacks; not usually when a draft class is trying to go out and prove themselves. With this onboarding program, the Dolphins are flipping the script.

Will the trend catch on? It’s possible. The Jacksonville Jaguars also featured a toned-down mini-camp (after last year’s mishap) and New York Jets coach Todd Bowles said he considered something similar for his team. It seems likely that someone else will, too. There’s nothing fluffy about using onboarding as an opportunity to get new employees confident and up to speed, even in a hyper-competitive environment. As every manager knows, there will never be a shortage of opportunities for top performers to stand out and prove they belong.