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. This is Post 2
The first day of practice is always the first day we get to see all of our players together for the first time. Since I don’t coach other sports, am not very connected locally and don’t recruit players, this is the first time I get to see a good number of the kids. All but 1 of our players shows up on day 1, the missing player is on vacation for the week and is the only player we don’t have a weight on. No one knows who is he is, he is a local homeschooled kid that hasn’t played any sports.
The first day is always used to set expectations, develop some enthusiasm, teach a few basics and evaluate players for their prospective positions. We do this just like the Winning Youth Football book talks about, through a variety of games that expose basic football playing skills. One of the games that helps us determine athleticism in Hawaiian Rules football, a fast paced team game of pitch and catch. The only problem was that on day 1, our 3rd grade group couldn’t get going on the game because no one could make the first catch. It got to the point where it was comical, not a single player could even catch a simple 3-4 yard soft tossed lateral. The game never got going and the coaches for the 5-6 grade team who were helping me run the game were literally in tears they were laughing so hard. I was almost in tears too but for a different reason, because I was the one that was going to have to coach these kids. Seriously the 5-6 grade coaches just shook their heads and offered to start praying for our team.
On day 1 I also found out the only player listed at over 85 lbs was a 90 lb 3rd grader who cried for most of practice. Our practices are not terribly hard and we didn’t do any set aside conditioning so it was a bit perplexing as to why he was crying. No one had yelled at him, no one had hurt him, he was just being asked to do things that other boys were doing. Mom said he hadn’t played team sports before and everything was just kind of a “shock” to him. He was also very slow and couldn’t seem to grasp even the most simple of instructions. I was doubtful he would even show up on day 2.
As a group we were very small, again 13 of the kids were under 65 lbs, we weren’t very athletic and we only had 1 starter returning.We were going to have to build the team around our 7 returning 4th graders who were: a 64 lb backup Power Tackle who was fast in straight line speed but terrible in space, not good lateral football speed. He won’t accelerate into contact- good in small spaces, not good in big spaces. He would be our starting Power Tackle and Defensive End. Our starting Right Guard and Defensive Tackle would be our backup Power Tackle and Backup Defensive End from last year. He has a lot of want to, smart, good feet and pretty aggressive, but small at about 78 lbs. Our starting Right End is a very short but stocky 78 lb third team Blocking Back from last year. He would be a backup Linebacker. An obedient player with good effort, just not very fast and not really big for a Tight End, not very good hands either. Our starting ILB and Wingback would be our 3rd team Wing from last year who had played some Corner, starting 1 game. He was only 71 lbs and very average speed, however he came in with a lot more confidence and ended up being a very physical blocker and tackler. Unfortunately he didn’t catch the ball consistently and lacked the ability to make big plays on the counter. The starting 1 back or Quarterback was a player who had been a 2nd team Fullback the previous year and only weighed about 68 lbs. Our QB coach rated him a 1 on a 1-10 scale (1 being the worst) at the QB camp. This player was very fumble prone the previous year and didn’t run physical or follow directions very well. He ended up starting for us at Quarterback and Corner and played some Fullback as well. He was quick and had good lateral speed, his professional speed training was paying off. Our starting Fullback had been a backup Safety and Blocking Back the year before. A wrestler, he only weighed 61 lbs but he was very quick and was not afraid of contact. He started at both Fullback and Corner for us. He ended up being one of the best open field tacklers I’ve ever coached, he didn’t miss a tackle the entire season. You gotta love the wrestlers. Our starting Blocking Back and Inside Linebacker was the only returning starter. He had started some games at Wingback the previous year and played quite a bit of Linebacker. At 71 lbs he was very coachable, learning all 4 backfield positions and splitting time at the Quarterback spot early in the year because he was the only player who was consistently attacking the line of scrimmage at full tilt. A bit injury prone, he was one of the leaders on the team. Another returner ended up weighing 88 lbs, just past the striper weight. The previous year he had been a backup Nose Tackle and backup Left Guard on offense, he would fill that same role again. While he had ok size, he continued to have a limited attention span and his effort level was inconsistent.
So while we were trying to figure out the rest of our team, we knew what we had to build on. Some of these returning players had improved from the previous year, that was reflected in their position changes. A combination of confidence in already playing for a winning team, speed development and the natural maturity being a 4th grader instead of a 3rd grader was a good starting point. The rest would have to be coached up.
We knew we were going to have to develop a consistent and effective offensive line almost from scratch. We were going to have to win the turnover battle, we had to protect the football and were going to have to get extremely aggressive about taking the ball away. I felt we could probably find a way to score a few points every game, but were going to have to try and keep our defense off the field. We were AWFUL at throwing and catching the ball, we had to develop at least the appearance of a legitimate pass threat ( we had thrown for 16 TD passed the year before) At this point it looked like our 2 starters at Defensive Tackle were going to be 78 and now 88 lbs, his real weight, not the 85 mom had written on the form. We were going to have to develop and find ways for our 12 minimum play players to contribute who the coaches had ranked 1-3. We were going to have zero depth which meant we were going to have to do a lot more cross training than usual and we were really going to have to think outside the box on position placements.
These were our initial thoughts after day 1. More on how we did it in subsequent posts. I will address each area individually in the coming week or so.
All youth football coaches go into that first day of practice with high hopes. We all like to see big and athletic kids show up on day 1, we all want to have an easier go of it, but that doesn’t happen very often. Quite frankly my coaches and I were all a little disappointed after that first practice, it looked like it would probably be a 5-5 season if we played our cards right. Yes it was a 3 aspirin night and I was asking myself why do I always get myself into these situations when it would have been MUCH easier moving up with the 18 kids I had coached the year before to the 5-6 grade level. The answer was we had a bunch of first year coaches at that level and that team needed the most help.
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