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 your team, should you end up in the same situation. This will be told over several posts. I purposely kept the game outline posts in this blog vague as many coaches from the league I coach in buy my materials and follow my posts here and on twitter. Now you will get the details.
Some background to help you understand how we might comapre to your situation: the 3-4 grade team I coached is primarily kids aged 8-9, we also had a 7 year old younger brother of a player who was a second grader. We let him play so the brothers could have the 1 year experience of playing together. We play in the largest youth football league in the state of Nebraska, this year the 3-4 grade bracket had 32 teams in it from 20 different communities. We had 25 players on the team, all brought in on a first come, first served signup from fliers at the local school and a newspaper add in the local paper that advertised an open house at our last home game in October. The net is, this isn’t a select team, anyone can play, we don’t run anyone off and if you attended our first week of practice, you would have seen we looked like the land of misfit toys.
Of the 25 players, 18 were new to football. That really isn’t a problem at this age group, in my opinion. It is a huge problem if you have 2/3 of your kids as rookies if you are coaching age 12 and up, but for the younger kids, it’s not that big a deal. Most of the kids at this age group don’t have a ton of experience, so the head start some have isn’t a huge advantage.
The 7 kids we had returning would make up the nucleus of the starters for this team. Only 1 player had started the previous year on a team that I coached that went 10-1, but they all had plenty of game experience. What was probably the biggest benefit for the returners was that all of them were 4th graders now, 1 year makes a huge difference at this age level. All of these kids also were keenly aware of the level of focus, precision and pace that would be expected of them. Sure we have fun, but we always have more fun when the kids are paying attention, are executing to a fine level of detail, while doing everything at a very rapid pace.
In the off-season we do a 2 hour position camp for Quarterbacks, Running Backs, Receivers, Linebackers, Linemen etc. The kids choose what camp they want to attend. We also do a 1 day speed camp and then we do a 60 minute speed and athleticism development program 2 times a week over the summer. All of this is voluntary and open to anyone, you don’t have to play for us. Once we did a few of the camps and we got a peek at the weights of our incoming players, we knew the season would be a challenge. Our Quarterbacks coach ranked the kids we expected to play Quarterback a 1 and 2. A 1 would mean that player would be in the 10th percentile as a starting Quarterback in our league, 90% of the other Quarterbacks would be better than him. While we had better scores at Running Back and Linebacker (same player), we had equally dismal ratings at Lineman and Receiver.
From a size perspective, according to the signup sheets, we were going to be tiny. We had 24 papers with weights on them and only 1 player was above the 85 lb “striper” weight. In our league if you are over 85 lbs at that age group you can’t carry the ball, you have to play interior line. Most teams at this age group have 4-8 striped players. Last year in comparison we had 3 kids over 100 lbs and 6 stripers. This year according to the signup sheets we would have no kids over 100 and 1 striper. The signup sheets revealed that we had 13 players who were 65 lbs or less and 1 who weighed 48 lbs. Smallest 3-4 grade team we’ve ever fielded.
As a coaching staff we got together in the off-season and went over our roster. The coaches went down the list and rated the players athleticism against his peers based on what they knew of the kid playing baseball or basketball. Most of our coaches are dads who also coach other sports and they know the area kids pretty well. We live in a very small community, the local High School has about 600 students. Everyone rated the kids privately and independently so as to get away from any group-think. The results were pretty astounding. We had 12 players that ranked from 1-3, 6 that ranked from 4-5, 3 that ranked from 6-7, and 3 that ranked 8 or above. There was 1 player that was unranked, a local homeschooled kid who no one knew.
So what could we do now in the off-season when we knew we would be fielding a very small and weak team? We got as many kids as we could to speed training. About 2/3 of this team participated and 2 of our kids had parents who enrolled their kids in professional speed training. The speed and athleticism training is open for everyone in the area, all sports, but about 90% who attend are our football players. It helped our weak kids gain some confidence and help them understand how we wanted them to be coached. It helped our average kids develop into better athletes and got a number of them into starting roles. Our good players really saw the biggest improvements, their explosiveness, lateral speed and acceleration showed big gains. The 2 hour camps and speed training also helped us understand who could do what, so we had an idea of how we would be able to cobble together a competitive team.
The next post: Day 1 Practice, a 3 Aspirin Day
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