RIFLE, Colorado - John Wisniewski isn't about to claim himself a football expert. He does, however, take pride in the job he does coaching football at Rifle Middle School.
"I will tell everybody I'm not a football coaching guru because my sport is wrestling," said Wisniewski, who is also Rifle High's wrestling coach. "I'd like to say that, at the middle school level, you want the kids to have good fundamentals, a good stance and know the basic principles of offense and defense."
"My hope," the coach continued, "is that I've done a good enough job by the time they've left that they'll be ready to play well at the high school level."
Some of Wisniewski's players are doing that now.
The third-year coach of the Rifle Middle School Cubs football team earlier this week could name six players currently on Rifle's playoff roster who he has helped bring up from the middle school program. And the role the middle school program plays in the success of the high school team is, more often than not, one of the most important aspects to the varsity squad's overall success.
"A quality high school program relies heavily on a quality middle school program," Rifle High School football coach Damon Wells said. "There's a quote from [author and journalist] Malcom Gladwell in which he said that '10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert in anything.' As our kids grow from middle school to high school, they come closer and closer and closer to that number. That can only help our program."
Making sure athletes are taught correctly from the beginning as seventh-graders is the primary focus for Wisniewski. But, unlike high school, some of the material Wisniewski and his coaches go over are basic tasks, some as rudimentary as players learning to put knee pads in their pants.
After those basics are taught, much of the material middle school players are taught share similarities with the high school playbook. Many of the offensive and defensive formations the Bears have were first taught to some players as seventh- and eighth-graders.
It's a process that helps players who move on into high school football make an easier transition to a higher level, Wisniewski said.
"We try to mimic [the high school's] offense and defense as much as possible," the coach said. "The high school is going to have a little different terminology than what we'll use at the middle school. That makes the transition easier."
Overall, Rifle Middle School's football team will install no fewer than the four basic plays out of Rifle High's offensive playbook and, when a quarterback steps to the line of scrimmage, even his cadence will be similar to the one used by the Bears.
Philosophies behind the high school's defensive looks also remain the same at the middle school level, and Wisniewski makes a point to get feedback from other coaches on Rifle's staff regularly.
By keeping that system in place, Rifle High School is hoping double-figure victory totals will remain for years to come.
"Hopefully by the time we're done with them, they'll at least know what a football looks like," Wisniewski joked.