How do you avoid meltdowns when you are coaching youth football?
First of all, you have to prepare for possible meltdown situations, they can and do happen, not only in youth football, but at all levels of the game. Last year in the Capital One Bowl we saw a prime example of a classic meltdown in the Nebraska- South Carolina game. The Cornhuskers scored first to take a 6-0 lead to then have their PAT run back to make it a 6-2 game instead of 7-0, a 4 point swing. Nebraska totally dominated the first half in yards, time of possession and most importantly physicality. They held South Carolinas offense to a single score. NU was leading 13-9 with just 1 second remaining in the half, with the Gamecocks on their own 49 yard line. South Carolina scored a touchdown on the last play of the half on a Hail Mary bomb. You could see the look of defeat in those Nebraska kids eyes as they had their heads bowed down and slowly trotted to the locker room for halftime. Nebraska never recovered from that, getting shut out in the second half in a 30-13 loss. I saw 2 games this year at the Pop Warner National Championships in Orlando where a team that scored right before the half and was still trailing, won the game.
A nearly identical thing happened to one of my youth football teams a few years ago. We were riding a 30 plus game winning streak into a game against another undefeated team. We led 12-0 and had another touchdown called back. We also had a long run to the opponent’s 10 yard line called back on a penalty. On defense we had limited the other team to just 2 first downs. But just before the half they broke a long run to our 30 yard line and with just 2 seconds left in the half, they threw a Hail Mary pass that by some odd miracle dropped right in-between 2 of our defenders who had great coverage. So instead of leading 20-0 or 27-0 at the half, the score was now 12-8. As our kids came off the field, for the halftime break they looked like they had just lost the game.
As coaches we were disappointed we had missed our window to salt the game away, While the coaching staff was still upbeat, our kids were acting like we were losing the game. What did we do wrong and how do we make sure it doesn’t happen again?
The mistake we had made was in the week prior to the game we had built up to the kids how well we were going to play. Everyone in the league was uptight about playing this opponent. They had shut everyone out they had played to that point and were putting up some great numbers on offense. They were very athletic across the boar and well coached. I felt we matched up reasonably well and if we executed to near potential, we would win by 2-3 scores. Many times I’ve seen us play good teams like that, get up a couple of touchdowns early and have the game develop into a rout. In an attempt to bolster our teams confidence to get them to believe they were on par with this behemoth team, I let our kids know that I thought they would win and win big if we practiced and executed well that week. We went on to lose that game 20-12 after giving up a quick score and onside kick in the second half.
What I SHOULD have been telling our kids in the week leading up to the game was while I thought we would match up well, that the game was probably going to come down to the fourth quarter and that we should expect an up and down game. I should have told them, we were playing a very good team and that while I thought we were better, they should expect a wild play to go against them at some point in the game. How we picked ourselves up and responded would determine the game.
You could see “that look” and bad body language from our kids as they slowly trotted to our assigned area during halftime. The coaching staff agreed to be very upbeat at halftime. We smiled and talked about how we had dominated the first half with the exception of the last 90 seconds and went into detail about all the things we were doing well. As usual we talked about a handful of adjustments we would use in the second half and then we made a critical error. We talked about the 2 missed scoring opportunities we had and what “could have been” had we avoided those penalties. By looking back and ending halftime by looking over our “spilled milk” we didn’t put the past behind us to quickly move on- we dwelt on it. That was a huge mistake.
If you want to cause a meltdown at halftime, dwell on those 1-2 plays that put your team into a funk. Want to set your team up for a meltdown- set their expectations in such a way they can never be met. Be realistic, set reasonable expectations, be positive and don’t dwell on a few mistakes that are water under the bridge. Nothing you can do is going to bring that play back or take points off the board, all you can do once a mistake is made is to calmly point out how not to make that mistake again and move on.
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