Developing Mental Toughness in Youth Football
Many of us that played youth football 20-30 years ago remember coaches developing mental toughness in players by putting us through endless grueling drills or depriving us of water. The thought was by making things physically difficult that this would help develop some type of mental toughness in the players as well. While this practice may have worked for some teams, it also helped run off many players and sour many on the game and football practice in general. There are a number of ways to accomplish this same goal without resorting to those tactics or wasting a bunch of valuable practice time on them.
How we do it:
How We Were Taught
As a youth football player I was one of those odd kids that loved to go to football practice. We all have some of those type of kids on our teams every year, but in todays world of unlimted choices and instant gratification, we see less and less of these kids these days. As a youth football player, I dreaded those first few weeks of torture and deprivation, but knew in the end that we would eventually get into learning the game and actually playing. Other youth players on my teams often never got to that point, they didn’t know there was an end result that was worth waiting for, some would sour on the game or quit during those first miserable 2 weeks.
As time went on, I ended up playing High School, then College Football. The physical portion of the game became less important than the mental toughness needed to perform well. Being perfect with technique and assignment as well as the “mental toughness” of the individual was more important than just dominating physically at these upper levels. As a player moves up the ladder of competition, the disparities in talent are less and less pronounced and the mental portion of the game becomes more important.
Youth Football Today
At the youth level, the higher the level of competition the greater the importance of mental toughness is to the success of your team. If you have a stud player or two that has carried your team all season, when you get to the upper levels of competition, the other teams are going to have two to three studs as good or better than yours. You can rarely get by on talent alone when you play at the highest levels of youth football especially when you got to the playoffs or travel out of town to play. Your team has to be prepared to play in dogfights where they may have to play from behind or be matched up against far superior teams.
Gaining an Edge With Mental Toughness
Many youth coaches that are now in their playoffs or traveling to National Tournaments are looking for edges, physical, emotional and mental edges. Traveling out of state to play games against unfamiliar teams can be very challenging mentally for your football team. Maybe you are from a primarily white suburban area and you are matched up with an all-black inner-city team or you play a team that outweighs your offensive line by over 60 pounds per player, it happens all the time in playoff and tournament games. If your kids don�t have a lot of mental maturity, it’s going to be very difficult for them to succeed in these type situations. Often when faced with this type of challenges, many youth players develop mysterious illnesses or injuries. In boxing terms we call this “looking for a soft place to land”. Many of you youth coaches that have not gone to these tournaments would be surprised at how poorly some teams perform. Teams that have been bullies in their own leagues face adversity or a quality match-ups for the first time and fold like a cheap deck of cards. I’m speaking of teams that come in with amazing records, but get smacked in the mouth for the first time and crumble. But there are techniques you can use when coaching youth football, to prepare your team for these inevitable challenges.
I’ve found there is no last minute magic bullet or speech that can help your kids over this type of hump. There are some pre-game tips listed here on the blog that can help lessen some of the stress, see “Beating the Bully Team” entry. But helping your kids develop some mental toughness throughout the season is what’s needed to tame this ghost. We try and create pressure situations during practice all year that will show our kids they can perform well under lots of pressure.
Mental Toughness Exercises
20 Perfect Offensive Football Plays in a row. We run our offensive plays out on air. Our backs and pullers run everything out 20 yards, our linemen take their first two steps and freeze, then on a whistle sprint 20 yards to a designated spot for the next play. Needless to say the kids get pretty winded as I’m calling out both the plays and cadence to keep the pace very fast. Each play must be executed flawlessly for it to “count” and we don�t quit until we get 20 perfect plays in a row. Perfect means the alignment and stances of all the players is perfect, each linemen has led and finished with his correct foot, each back has performed his responsibilities either blocking, faking or running perfectly and that we have 100% effort from everyone on the play. This includes the back-ups running with the group at full attention and effort. If one player breaks down, we start over again at 1.
The kids need to understand that this is an 11 player game and if one player fails his responsibility, our football plays will fail and then our team will fail. The kids need to be trained that every detail is important and non-negotiable. Peer pressure is a very important tool in youth football, the kids will police themselves in this drill, they don�t want to have to run endless 20 yard sprints.
After a few start and stops, eventually the kids will embrace this drill as a challenge and look forward to it. Kids on our team actually ask for this drill, they like to see how many perfect plays they can do in a row, they want to set new records. After you�ve run this drill for 20 minutes in 90 degree heat there is no greater pressure than to be on play number 18, the kids don’t want to start over again at 1. To add even more pressure to the situation, call a pass play on the 20th play. You never know when a game can come down to a very last second pass play that you have to make under huge pressure.
Another great way to build mental maturity is to Scrimmage against teams that are out of your league. There are multiple youth football leagues in our area and we try and develop relationships with teams in all of them. Set up mid-season scrimmages against teams that are the exact opposite of your team or the teams you typically face. If you are an inner-city team, scrimmage a rural or suburban team. If your league is a run dominated league, play a spread passing team. If your team is good but small, scrimmage a huge team or even a team that is an age bracket or classification higher. Doing this shows your kids you can play against anyone, the more extreme the differences, the better it is for your football team.
Creating Pressure Situations
We also like to create pressure situations for our kids during practice. We will often wrap practice up by practicing field goals. In our youth football league the extra point kick is worth 2 points, the run or pass is just 1 point, hence the kicks are very important. If you play a team that can’t kick extra points and your team can and you score a touchdown, you in essence have a 2 score lead if you can make your extra point kick. We put our field goal team on the practice field then put all the other kids on the team opposite them, they jump up and down, yell, scream etc to distract the kicker. After a few kicks we then tell the kicker if he makes the next kick, we get 10 minutes of “game time”, if he misses we will run plays out 20 yards for the next 10 minutes. Obviously he�s under a lot of pressure here, we may even add a player or two behind the line of scrimmage near the holder spot and have them yell at the kicker as well.
We do the same with some of our pass catching drills. We will line up our offensive formation right in front of where the parents are that have come to watch our football practice. We let the kids and parents know that if we complete the next pass, practice is over, if we don�t complete it, we get 10 more minutes of team offense with 20 yard football plays being run out. Again we are creating pressure situations with positive and negative team consequences based on the results and effort of the team. We may even place 4-5 players at the catching point of this pass, having the kids yelling and waving their arms to distract the reciever to train him to handle pressure.
Adding Heat In Practice
When doing team offensive reps on air in practice I often require that we get a play off every 20 seconds. I will call the cadence to set the pace and tempo. Getting everyone into position and running a perfect play every 20 seconds creates pressure, but also shows the kids they can run lots of plays quickly in time sensitive situations. Since we are always a no-huddle team, we are always in hurry-up mode.
While my teams over the last 7 years have rarely trailed in many games, we have had a number where we did and had to make a comeback. We often scored right before the half in time sensitive situations. This season my age 7-9 kids scored on the last play of the first half in 3 separate games and in the last minute of the half in 5 of 9 games. We all know that scoring right before the half is a backbreaker in youth football. We did this by running a lot of plays in a small amount of time, our kids just didn’t panic when the clock was winding down, they fully expected to score.
We have played out of league and out of state tournament games against much larger and more athletic competition. Our teams mental maturity is what helped us compete in these games. Don�t neglect developing mental maturity with your kids especially if you expect to play in a big game or travel out of town to play in one of the many youth football tournaments out there.
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