As promised I’m going to try and help coaches who inherit athletically challenged and small youth football teams by sharing my story from coaching my 3-4 grade team in 2013. Hopefully you can use some of the ideas to apply to coaching your youth football team, should you end up in the same situation. This will be told over several posts. This is Post 4. We went 12-0 in a 32 team age bracket, but I promise you we didn’t look like we had any chance at having a season like that when you looked at us that first weeks of practice.
The first 2 days of pads are extremely important in youth football and even more so when you have a very inexperienced and weak team. Your goals are to EASE the kids into contact so that they will quickly and effectively develop into competent and safer players who will accelerate into and through contact.
The problem is when you have a weaker team, often times you don’t have a lot of players with “natural” aggression. Many of these types of kids will be ruined by many youth football coaches who rush to get into full contact mode to “separate the men from the boys.” What often times happens is kids put into this situation will ALWAYS be shy of contact, will end up playing timid and afraid, disengage or quit. In fact most of these kinds of kids most of us never see because they have quit before the season ever starts. It doesn’t have to be that way, my own personal teams have had just 2 drops in the last 10 seasons and just like you I’ve had a good number of sheltered timid kids.
What’s most important that first day of pads is to SET EXPECTATIONS. That means you talk to the kids about the fact that almost all of them are apprehensive about the first day in pads. EVERYONE feels that way, it’s natural, it’s normal, you aren’t weird for feeling this way. It’s called having butterflies and it’s OK to feel that way. Let the kids know you AREN’T going to have much contact on day 1 and that when you do you are going to teach them in steps called progressions so that they can block and tackle in a very safe and effective way. Tell them that if they listen and follow directions it will be fun and they will eventually get very good at the skills you are teaching them. I like ask them in a group, “Do you have to be fast and strong to be a good tackler?” the answer is led by the kids who have played for us before with a resounding “NO.” Then I tell them a story about a couple of former players who ended up doing really well in High School who started with us as very small, weak and scared players. So that covers the mental part.
The physical part is covered by making sure you teach in tiny building block progressions, taught and perfected in incremental steps. How we do it is detailed in our book “Winning Youth Football a Step-by-Step Plan.” These are tiny, PRECISE movements, that when combined together in the end make it nearly impossible for every player to have success when it comes to blocking, tackling and accelrating to and through contact. We combine these progressions with drills that EASE kids into contact so that the contact doesn’t hurt and is fun, drills like the “Splatter Drill” and others are great examples of this and found in the book. We also LIMIT the amount of contact and the contact distance and invest that time in perfecting the progression movements that mimic exactly what a football player has to do well in real life in real games. Our daily practice plans in the book detail every minute of every practice for all 14 weeks. You won’t see a lot of full contact live full team scrimmaging there by the way. Many youth football coaches think kids either have it or they don’t and the teams who win are just blessed by luck and genetics of having enough kids who “have it.” Well that makes a lot of guys feel better about themselves but the facts are almost everyone has lots of kids who “don’t have it” that first few weeks or even months of practice. You can teach kids to play with effort and aggression and it rarely comes by just throwing them in like gladiators to see who survives.
That’s all good stuff and we expected we were going to see significant improvement over the course of the season, but this team was still scary bad. The net is we were still very discouraged after that first week of practice and the first 2 days in pads. But it is what it is, you do the very best with what players you end up with, crying over what you don’t have doesn’t help your situation at all.
Part 5 of this series will talk about how we got very creative in developing our minimum play players and the smoke and mirrors we used to make sure we got them their plays. For the guys that have been doing this for awhile, you know how tough that can be. I’ve been coaching youth football for about 25 years and this was by far the team I’ve had with the highest percentage of true minimum play players. Hopefully you can use these ideas to help coach your youth football team.
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