This post is going to talk about how to get a weaker and smaller team to believe in themselves. As promised I’m going to try and help youth football coaches who inherit athletically challenged and small teams by sharing my story from coaching my 3-4 grade team (8-9 year olds) in 2013. I’ve coached youth football for about 25 years now and this was one of the most challenging situations ever. 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 10 in that series. We went 12-0 in a 32 team age bracket with a very small and unathletic team.
One of the biggest challenges to getting a weaker team to perform well is to “get their minds right” to use an old phrase from the movie classic “Cool Hand Luke.” A team who has a positive and strong mindset can overperform their potential, while a very negative and weak mindset can end up in an entire season collapse. I’ve seen and heard about plenty of youth football teams who implode due to negativity, teams that disintegrate and even lose enough players that they can’t continue playing. How embarrassing and disheartening that must be for the remaining players and coaches. Winning doesn’t cure everything, but getting beaten badly every week almost always brings out the worst in everyone.
How do you mentally develop a weaker team? First you have to understand the importance and commit to developing their mental attitude and mental toughness. You have to sell it to your coaching staff and even your parents. The goal is to remain positive while setting tough but achievable goals for the team and players.
Don’t panic if on that first day of open field tackling drills in the second week that your average player is 1-10. Next weeks goal will be 2-10 for the team average and then a breakout of 4-10 for at least 4 players. Celebrate achieving the goal, then set a higher but achievable goal for the following week.
Share stories of past teams of yours who weren’t very big or talented, who worked hard and ended up having successful seasons. If you don’t have those type of successes in your background, share with your team experiences of local High School or youth teams that were able to pull it off. Be as detailed as you can and talk about teams or people the kids know or can relate to.
Celebrate improvement, even the smallest of improvements from your least athletic players. Everything needs to be about the process of improving. Make a goal in team of 10 perfect plays in row and when you hit it, make a big deal about it. Kids get to pelt the coaches with water balloons or the coaches all run a lap as a staff. Then move the goal to 15, then 20 etc. Always end practice by talking about the specific improvements you saw at practice.
Make sure to involve everyone and make absolutely sure you are having some fun at every practice. Remember your kids can have fun and YOU can get what you want out of practice by doing the fun games from the book like Deer Hunter, Towel Game, Hawaiian Rules Football and Sumo. Investing just 10 minutes of every practice in something like that will keep everyone focused, working hard and coming back.
Don’t talk about how small or slow your team is. They don’t need to know how deep of a hole they are digging themselves out of. In individual drills always stress the importance of perfect technique and WHY that technique allows the player the chance to level the playing field against bigger or more athletic opponents.
Note that scrimmaging against another team or even yourselves will be almost a total waste of time and counterproductive. If you have 4 weeks to get ready, you might run 10 plays on offense and defense against yourselves in that third week. If you can find a weaker or at least average opponent to practice against in a “controlled” scrimmage, that may make sense. Controlled means you start at the other team 20 yard line and run 10 plays, then go on defense. Then the backups are in for 5 plays each against the opponents backups. Make sure you let the kids know, that your goal is to work through your offense and defense, work on technique and evaluate effort. Let the kids know it isn’t a real game and no one is keeping score. Far TOO MANY weaker teams scrimmage way too early in scrimmages that are far to long and their kids get a “loser” mindset.
On game days hide your players from the opposition. You don’t want your kids eyeballing the other teams bigger and faster kids during warmups. I ask our players to assemble in the parking lot 40 minutes prior to the game. That way the other team is already out of the way and warming up. Don’t let your kids get adrenaline rushed out, 35 minutes is plenty to get warmed up, get your teams on and off the field and do a little live hitting. We always warm up completely away from the other team, totally out of eye distance. At home we warm up behind a building while the opposition warms up on the game field. For many games we won’t even come out for the National Anthem. Once we do come onto the game field, we face the kids away from the opposition. Our kids don’t have time to fret or be afraid, it’s that apprehension that breeds fear. Once the game starts and our kids don’t have that fear built up in their minds, most of the kids are just fine.
Note on home game days we put on a show at our field. We display all of our League and Tournament Trophies dating back to 2004. We also have 3×5 banners of a Team Picture of every team we’ve ever fielded here that won a championship or was runner up. That banner also has their record and what they won. So now we have about 24 of those hanging on the fence on the only entrance to the field, right behind the visitors bench. It NEVER fails, prior to every game the opposing teams mulls around the trophy table and banners. Some of the opposing players even touch them and are seen discussing back and forth amongst themselves how “great” our teams are, even when they aren’t. Those Jedi mind tricks aren’t just for your players, they are for the opposition as well.
Smile, be confident, be calm and be positive. Remember coaching youth football isn’t all about xs and os, it’s about the mind as well. If you take the advice from our Winning Youth Football books and DVDs, you might be surprised at how well you do. If your team doesn’t do as well as you hoped, go max slowdown, run the clock and have the coaching staff take 100% responsibility for any mistakes.
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