Have you ever coached a big game where the kids played tight? I did way back in 2006 in a Division Championship game. We were undefeated playing another very good undefeated team, both vying for a chance to play in a 4 team playoff for a league title in a 40 team grouping of teams. Our team was pretty good that year, winning 9 of our previous 10 games by mercy rule scores. In the week prior to the game we had practiced well and were well prepared for the offensive and defensive schemes of our opponent. Our teams were fairly equal in size and talent, a very winnable game.
In the pre-game speech we talked about our assignments, keys, goals and about giving everything on every play. Many of our kids in pre-game looked tight, none of the usual smiles and looseness we had seen in the previous 10 games. It wasn’t confidence or focus either, it seemed like a burdensome look. Our team moms had put encouraging signs in every players yard the night before. There was a huge crowd our parents were out in full force. We came out tight, lost several turnovers, made a few uncustomary assignment errors and lost the game. Not only did we lose, but it didn’t seem like any of our kids were having much fun. The effort was there, but we made a few very small mistakes that the opposition were able to exploit.
In a subsequent game a few years later with even more riding on it, I decided NOT to make that same mistake again. After a very good week of practice, we handled this pre-game in a much different manner. I let the team moms know, no signs or anything out of the ordinary. We did our pre-game away from the stadium and even skipped our player intros. I rounded all the coaches up and told them we were going to be nothing but smiles and loose confidence prior to the game. We were all encouraging players and doing lots of hand slaps in warm ups and walk-throughs. In the pre-game talk right before kickoff, I nonchalantly took an apple out of my pocket and starting eating it, during my talk. I just reminded the kids we were the best team on the field, why we were going to win and for them just to have a lot of fun out there. No win one for the gipper type stuff, which I am NOT a big fan of. I made sure to make eye contact and smile with every one of my players. It took the edge off the kids, there were all smiles and there was a little bit of laughter going on as a few of the smarter kids figured out what I was doing.
It worked, we came out loose and scored 2 touchdowns on our first 2 possessions against a team that had 1 touchdown scored on their first team defense all year. We scored 20 points in the first half and almost got another one in before the half.
Getting kids to calm down and enjoy the moment, is the right thing to do when you are coaching youth football, it also helps your kids play better too.
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