Empowering Coaches Step-By-Step

Getting Kids Who Are Terrified of Contact- to Engage in Youth Football

What to Do When Youth Football Players Won’t Engage

I’ve had a number of youth football coaches e-mail me with a problem most of us have to deal with from time to time, a player who won’t engage in contact. Maybe won’t engage is a poor choice of words, he feigns injury when it comes time to do certain contact drills or maybe he hits the deck immediately or turns his shoulder and looks for a soft place to land during contact drills. Maybe he disappears to the end of the line or chooses to go on long bathroom breaks when it’s time to do real contact drills. In extreme cases I’ve heard of kids who simply refuse to engage in any type of serious contact at all. I’ve even heard of some kids even resorting to feigning illness, crying or even going into temper tantrums to escape having to engage in contact.

This is a problem that can lead to a player quitting, not enjoying his football experience, creating practice flow issues, harming team discipline and hurting the team chemistry of your youth football team. If you play in a minimum play rule league this can also affect the safety of the player and the competitiveness of your team. Problems like this can tear apart a youth football team.

We live in a different age than what we grew up in. In today’s society many kids are sheltered by helicopter parents. Kids can be a bit intimidated by something strange to them, physical contact with other kids their age. Don’t assume just because you let your own children rough house, wrestle in the house and play tackle football with their friends in the yard that everyone does that. While some kids simply are just showing restraint due to unfamiliarity or timidity, we can’t just chalk it up to that and hope he somehow gets something positive out of his football experience. Of course other coaches are just hoping the player quits or if he comes back, that he is put on someone else’s team.

It doesn’t have to be like that, this problem is usually solvable with the right approach. Now I’m not saying you can take every Timid Timmy and turn him into the second coming of Dick Butkus, but you can turn him into someone that can develop a love for the game and be a contributor. In my first year in the Lincoln area I started a program from scratch. That first year I got 3 kids who had played before all were bench warmers from their previous teams and 1 was deathly terrified of contact. I was told by his previous coach that he would actually run as fast as he could to the sidelines when he got the ball to get out of bounds and would visibly tremble in the huddle. He would get “stomach aches” prior to heavy hitting drills only to make miraculous recoveries when it came time to do non hitting drills. Using some of the below techniques, we made him into a 2 way starter his first season. By year 3 he was in the top 20% of our team when it came to physicality.

First start by letting ALL the players know on that first day of pads, that being a little apprehensive about contact was 100% NORMAL. It is something all youth football players deal with, the kids need to know they aren’t cowards, that feeling this way is natural, everyone has those little butterflies flying around in their guts. Smile, laugh about it, make that fear something less than it needs to be.

Helping players gain confidence in their equipment can help qualm contact fears. Most players don’t have a clue how much their gear costs or how much testing their gear has to go through in order for it to be certified. This isn’t the 1920’s, the days of leather helmets and cardboard shoulder pads are long gone. Due to high R&D, testing and insurance costs, there are just 4-5 helmet and shoulder pad companies doing business these days. Tens of millions of dollars or research have gone into developing equipment that is keeping youth football players more safe today than at any other point in the history of the game.

The next step is getting players to feel confident in their ability to be football players, that means helping them get comfortable in developing basic blocking and tackling skills. Most youth football coaches don’t do this until the kids start wearing pads, but it should start the first day of practice before the kids are even thinking about putting pads on. You can perfect nearly all of the basics for blocking and tackling without pads. Break down how you plan on blocking and tackling into minute progressions that can be perfected step by step and built upon, building block by building block. An example would be our “Snug” and “Baby Step” tackling progressions starting on page 109 of my book “Winning Youth Football.”

Many youth coaches ruin kids on the game by using the good old, “throw em in the deep end and see if they can swim” approach. Sure you get to see early on who your stud players are, but for many of those less aggressive players it ends up zapping any sense of confidence out of them. Easing kids into contact will help your average kids develop into studs and help your weaker players to gain the confidence to be safe contributors. That first day of practice in full pads is filled with angst and apprehension. I let the kids know we are going to do very little full contact that day to let the air out of that balloon. We like to start our “true” contact with “splatter” drills. These are blocking and tackling drills that use tall bags as landing mats and shields to protect the tacklee or blockee. Even these are done with a “fit” to start with, prior to a full speed rep with both players landing in the landing mat of tall bags. These type drills allow your players to go full speed into contact along with taking a player to the ground and accelerating through contact without feeling the full effect of the contact, see page 257 of my book for pictures and details.

Unfortunately we see a too many youth football players developing a fear of contact in those first few days of practice because of distance issues. Keep the distances between the players very small those first few days. Space is the enemy of the beginner or even average player. Our close quarters talking drill is the first true full contact to the ground drill we do and the players are literally just 1-2 inches apart from each other. Add space based on the skill level the player has shown.
When you develop a skill, do so in circuits so players can develop skills based on their ability. For example lets say you want to practice tackling and you have already done a short “Snug”, “Baby Step” and “Angle Form” drill for 10 minutes. Set up a circuit of: splatter tackling, close quarters tackling, 3 slot challenge and 10 yard box tackling drills. Your studs go straight to the 10 yard box open field tackling drills, while your less aggressive kids develop their skills in the splatter and close quarters drills. Move players up based on their ability and especially in that first month, make sure to make the matchups fairly even.

If players still choose not to engage after using this approach and these techniques it’s time for you to talk to the player away from the team. Players must trust you in order for you to be heard. That means they must know you care. Use his name a lot, smile, let him know you are glad he is part of your team. Compliment him on the things he does well, make sure he feels part of the team and then ask him how he is enjoying his football experience. Bring up the contact issue and let him talk. Let him know almost every player has the same fears as he does, but finds out that when they apply themselves, they find out all those fears were far worse than what actually happens on the practice or game fields. Encourage him to engage and put him in a position to have some success, don’t throw him to the lions.

Over time, some of these kids can really surprise you. For some it’s right away, for others it’s in game 5 for others it may be the following season. One recent season we had a very small kid who struggled with contact, but he wanted to play. He started to show some promise after he perfected and consistently used a crab blocking technique against bigger players. He snapped out of his passivity mid season after making a big hit almost by accident in a “tackle baseball” game we played in practice.

If you care about the player and he knows it and you use the above approach, most of the extreme passivity issues are never going to be a problem for you. However if you run into that ultra odd situation that does, you need to talk to him with mom and dad about playing time and safety issues. Do it in an encouraging way, letting them know how important that the player continues to be a part of your team and how he can earn additional playing time.

Copyright 2012 Cisar Management, all rights reserved. This article may be republished but only if this paragraph and link are included. //winningyouthfootball.com

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1 Comment

  1. Stephen Mccrary

    Very helpful information. Just started coaching and have several players that have never played. I have been struggling with how to get the kids more comfortable with contact; my own son being one of them. The best thing I like about your methods is that it is all based in positive reinforcement and lifting up the kids. Going out to buy your book this weekend. God bless.

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