Playing to the Whistle
“Play to the whistle” is the mantra of many youth football coaches, including yours truly.
We want our players to effort and finish off plays, a concept many players struggle to grasp. We teach and reinforce that standard by making all of our drills a bit longer than the typical youth football play of 4-5 seconds. Most of our drills are about 8 seconds long and we hold each player accountable to efforting to the echo of the whistle on that 8th second. In our mind, you didn’t do the drill at all if you didn’t effort through the echo of the whistle. A non-rep would mean the offending player would be required to do another rep immediately. Remember, what youth football coaches allow, you condone and what you condone you implicitly endorse. If you allow not efforting to the whistle to happen in practice, it will definitely happen in games.
Once you see your kids efforting to the whistle, you have a completely new set of problems. Quite often what we see then are lots of clipping penalties and unnecessary roughness penalties. These penalties often lead coaches and players going in the opposite direction and playing less aggressively.
Try working with your players that once they see the back of the running back 10 yards upfield, they raise their arms and do not attempt to block as they continue to run downfield. Nothing is more heart breaking than seeing a well executed 60 yard touchdown run get called back because a player was clipping unnecessarily 20 yards behind the play. Just like anything, it is something you have to stress and practice.
On rare occasions you may get called for unnecessary roughness when blocking to the whistle on what may appear to be a perfectly legal block. In youth football especially, you can be called for roughness if the referee feels the block is happening so far away from the play that it adds no value to the play or is malicious. There is no rule of thumb, it is a judgment call. Some referees call it at 20 yards, many will call it at 30 yards. Here is the ruling straight from the NFHS Rulebook:
Rule 9-4-3 No player or nonplayer shall:
b. Charge into or throw an opponent to the ground after he is obviously out of the play, or after the ball is clearly dead either in or out of bounds.
g. Make any other contact with an opponent which is deemed unnecessary and which incites roughness.
In 2002 I had a very good age 8-10 team that was 11-0 and had won every game very handily. We played very well as a team and were aggressive blockers, the kids finished off blocks and played to the whistle. At our end of season extra Bowl Game, the referee told me in the pre-game, “Coach, I know you have a very good and aggressive team, I just want you to know I’m going to call any unnecessary blocks away from the play as an unnecessary roughness penalty.” That blew me away, but I’m glad he told me ahead of time how he was going to call the game.
I huddled my coaches up and explained the situation to them. We agreed the best way to handle it was to explain to the kids that they needed to be very careful not to block way downfield or finish blocks off when the play was 20 yards away. Unfortunately our kids didn’t quite grasp what we were trying to convey and played timidly. We lost by the widest margin in the 122 games I’ve coached this system. Maybe in retrospect I should have just let the kids play the way they were used to playing and let the chips fall where they may. Unfortunately for us, we stress playing penalty free ball, so that may not have worked either. The kids would have been very confused to say the least.
Since that date, we have always stressed the limits that some referees will put on youth football players. That is part of our job as youth football coaches. Again this is subjective and you never know what the standard will be, always better to be safe than sorry when you are coaching youth football. Most coaches are shocked and outraged when their teams are flagged for this penalty. Many don’t even know it is a rule. Like it or not, this is a legitimate penalty that you need to be aware of and coach your players to avoid.
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