Students of The Game

Behind every touchdown catch or third-down stop, there is a level of mental preparation that fans don’t see. Many people believe that physical practice is the most prominent cause for on-field success, but one of the most important aspects of preparation takes place not on the field, but in front of a screen. Watching film is instrumental in team improvement, and can give players who watch-students of the game-a competitive edge.


On Tuesday afternoons during the fall sports season, the Paly football field, normally the site of an intense football practice with focused coaches, sweating players, high-level competition, and hard work, is empty. No footballs fly through the air to streaking receivers. No lineman practice blocking for their quarterback and running back. There are no tackling drills, and no players running sprints for conditioning. The team is in a classroom in the gymnasium, and though no football is being played, this is where the real work gets done.

There, players sit facing a large-screen television, with Head Coach Nelson Gifford at the front of the room. On the screen, game footage from the upcoming opponent is being played. They watch one of the opponents’ games and pause at important plays, which the coach breaks down. The team meticulously analyzes the other team’s offensive schemes and defensive strategies, in order to develop a game plan for the upcoming week specific to the other team’s style of play. 

Film is vitally important for improvement and preparation, and though spectators often think that on-field practice and physical preparation are the main factors for success, studying film is often the key to victory. The mental aspect of sports and strategic preparation are the true foundations of on field success. Fans and spectators often neglect the importance of game film as an aspect of mental preparation, since all they see are highlight reel plays and dominating scores. However, its importance to the success of teams is immeasurable, and the complex nature of game film analysis makes all players, regardless of stature, talent, or athleticism, students of the game.

When you lose, it sucks but it’s a big learning moment and it helps you get back”

— Daniel Peters ('22)

One of the main uses of game film is to improve on past mistakes. Every Saturday, the football team watches the previous night’s game in order to analyze what areas they could improve in and what positives they can build on going forward. This is highly important to the development of players, teamwork, and strategy. According to Coach Nelson Gifford, the coaches meet for three hours determining a practice plan for the upcoming week based on what they can improve on heading into the next week.

The players understand the importance of watching game film in order to improve, even though it reopens the wounds created by tough losses.

“When you lose, it sucks but it’s a big learning moment and it helps you get back,” varsity quarterback Daniel Peters (‘22) said. 

It can often be painful to see yourself make a bad play or miss an opportunity that could have potentially changed the outcome of a loss. Players can’t help but feel like they let the team down or our responsible for the loss. Thoughts of what if may echo through the heads of players watching film. It especially hurts because players usually know what they did wrong without seeing it again. However, these experiences, though painful in the short term, are essential for growth and deep pain can inspire players to work harder to improve and ensure they don’t have to watch themselves fail again.

The ultimate goal is to improve, and this stays the same whether team loses by 10 or wins by 40. 

“We always treat film the same” varsity football player Colin Giffen (‘20) said. “After a win or lose we talk about what we did good, but most importantly we talk about what we can do to get better.”

The team does not only watch film to review themselves, but also to look at upcoming opponents to prepare for games. On Tuesday afternoon film sessions, the Vikes football team watches footage from their upcoming opponents.

By watching opponents, the team is able to develop a game plan the week before the game in practice, which makes them more prepared for the competition. When watching their opponents, they figure out favorable matchups and the techniques they might use based on the situation. They also try to look out for patterns the other team might use, which filter into their practice plan.

“A lot of the focus comes down to how we want to align, how we want to adjust against particular sets, and where we think we might be able to have a schematic or personal advantage” Gifford said. 

FIlm sessions on Tuesdays and Saturdays are both designed for improvement and success, but the mindset that players have going into each session—either self-watching or opponent scouting—is different. 

“Analyzing ourselves is different than doing it to opponents because when watching our self [sic], we learn from our mistakes and learn what we can do better but watching other people, we have to watch them and learn what we have to do to beat them,” Giffen said. 

In addition to team film sessions, individual players watch film specific to their positions.

“Film is important to every single position and if one position doesn’t watch film, it’s selfish and can mess up the game for us so that is why they call football a team sport” Giffen said.

Coach Gifford agrees with Giffen and believes that everyone should watch film regardless of their position. If you don’t have an opportunity to reflect on how you play, there is no room for improvement. Football is a team sport and if one person is slacking and doesn’t contribute, the whole team fails. 

Giffen says he watches film on his own for about 30 minutes per day in order to prepare individually. 

“As a receiver, I pay attention to how the safety plays and what he does when he lines up in a certain spot” Giffen said. “On defense, I read the guards and what they are going to do and what plays they run based on what the guards do.”

Watching other people, we have to watch them and learn what we have to do to beat them.”

— Colin Giffen ('20)

Although film is commonly associated with high school sports, it is an even more important to professional sports. NFL teams constantly watch film in order to specifically game plan for individual teams week to week. The entire core of a teams game plan can vary drastically from week to week.

 Elite players use game film and intense mental preparation to elevate their talent and physical abilities to play at the highest level. Hall of Fame Safety Ed Reed studied film to give his defense an advantage in games on top of their team’s cooperation and talent. Reed consistently spent hours dissecting the tape. Reed started the practice week leading up to a game by studying all the passing plays his opponents normally ran on first and second down. He would then watch plays from third down, the redzone, and every other possible scenario. Then, he might rewatch the entire game again. His coaches would give him a DVD of their next opponent and by the start of practice, Reed was ready. 

Reed’s level of preparation transcended the tape. In one account, Reed intentionally misplayed a certain coverage early in the season, when the stakes were low in order. Reed knew that one of the game’s best quarterbacks—Peyton Manning—watched film voraciously. Inevitably, Manning recognized Reed’s misplay, identifying it as a weakness. When Reed’s team faced Manning’s team later in the season. Reed pretended to misplay the coverage. This was just what Manning was looking for. He threw the pass to his receiver and…interception. Reed played the coverage correctly, but ricked Manning into throwing the ball so he could intercept it. 

This anecdote shows the level of mental preparation that goes into sports and illustrates the importance of game film.

Reed’s dedicated process of film watching helped him become one of the greatest defensive players of all-time, and watching film helps countless players elevate their performance.

The level of preparation that rises from game film allows players to become highly analytical and intelligent when it comes to opponents offenses and weaknesses. 

During the 2019 NFL season, Deshaun Watson was able to describe in detail why the Texans lost to the Panthers 16-10. When asked what they Texans could do to create more opportunities downfield, Watson responded with a complete breakdown of a Cover 4 defense complete with hand gestures. 

LeBron James is another athlete who was able to remember parts of a game. James was able to recall two minutes of the 2018 NBA Playoffs almost perfectly. 

Because of game film, players become highly educated in their individual sports and positions. Even though it acts as an unseen force, games are won because of the countless hours spent in the film room. Athletes always work to improve by watching film, and are truly students of the game.