Many struggling youth football programs have a tough time with roster sizes. Last week I got a call from the President of a youth football program that was agonizing over this very issue.
The program him and his buddies were trying to turn around had done a flyer handout at the local school. In the flyer they shared their new vision for the struggling program, shared some about their approach and talked at length about being “under new management.” They got 30 responses back from parents that said they wanted to play on this age 8-9 team.
What the President of this Org was having a tough time with was should he try and form an additional team at that age group or not. The first thing I asked him about was how many youth football coaches did he have and how many of them were competent coaches. He had just 6 coaches, all with a positive attitude, all had played High School football. some with management backgrounds, but few if any had been coaching youth football.
Based on that answer alone, I counseled the President to only field a single team at that age group. You can only expand your reach based on your coaching ability. With 6 inexperienced guys, it’s the blind leading the blind. The key is to build a quality coaching staff and then let the PROVEN best, teach and mentor the others which include the new coaches you add in subsequent years.
As it turned out, he also didn’t have a single payment in on the 30 that had “committed” to play. In youth football commitments don’t mean anything until payment is in. Parents are fickle and interest in playing youth football can turn on a dime.
If I was in a situation like that, I would have communicated to the parents of those who were interested that there would be a signup that started immediately. If the cost of playing is say $200, tell the parents that the first 25 players who have paid $195 in the next 10 days were guaranteed a spot on the team. This would be a first come, first served event with the time stamped on the check or credit card receipt of each payment received. At the end of 10 days if there were still spots open, the price for playing would be $235.
The reason you want to be at 25 players instead of 30 is with 25 all the kids get coached up hard and they can all develop and get reasonable amounts of playing time. By using this approach, you see who is really committed and who isn’t. It also gives parents an incentive to pay early, which helps you with your equipment purchasing process. Going this route also gives parents who didn’t get under the 25 player wire to be able to sign up for a different team. This President was from an area where the kids could play for other teams, there were choices. No players were going to be shut out from playing the game.
Another very important dynamic is in play here, the appearance of scarcity. If this program had to go out and personally recruit aka beg individual players to come play for their team, the balance of power is 100% in the parents hands. If a parent feels like they are being “recruited” because their son has some type of special athletic ability, that can cause a lot of problems. Often times that sets an expectation of a position played or even playing time. That’s why I don’t personally selectively recruit kids to play, my mantra is we are going to be successful no matter who signs up to play for us. Everyone who has a pulse is welcome, as long as you buy into our approach and can live up to the code of conduct.
Back to our friends, dilemma, let’s say now you are aggressively recruit and get to say 35 kids on 2 teams of 17 and 18 kids with 3 inexperienced coaches each. That would most likely melt into a situation where you had 2 struggling teams. Then let’s say you had an injury and another player who was being held out due to grades. When you are down to 15 kids, kids and parents know you are probably going to have to play their kids a bunch regardless of whether or not that player is attending practice or efforting. Now you are in a situation where you are being held hostage by the parents, they hold all the cards. Your only choices are to fold the team, play the kids who don’t show up or fall on your sword by playing only the remnant who shows and efforts and hope that you have 11 to finish the year out. In any event the final result will be what the previous guys had, lots of problems, lots of drama, lots of losses and poor retention numbers. Don’t get me wrong, at the youngest age groups with the right coaching staffs teams with small roster sizes with the right support and in the right Organizations can be successful, but that isn’t the case with this struggling program.
Struggling youth football programs are very fragile, anytime anything goes wrong, it’s expected, it’s part of the “culture.” To turn things around, you need success and success won’t come by reaching for a bridge too far. Build excellence from a committed core and then build from that. This approach works, I’ve used it myself to turn around two programs and helped hundreds of others to do the same.
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