As we head into regular season game one of this season, it would be very important to help these youth football players believe in themselves. How do you build that confidence when the team has no past history that would make anyone think they were a good football team? That is one of the biggest challenges for any of us coaching youth football. This is the continuing story of my “Worst to First” youth football coaching experience in Reno, Nevada this year. I took an 8th grade team that had won about 6 games in the last 6 years to the Semi-Finals in the largest and most competitive league in the Reno/North Nevada.
First let’s talk about how important that confidence is. How many times have you seen a dominant program in your league win games they probably shouldn’t? It happens all the time, even in down years those teams seem to find ways to be competitive. One of the big reasons is those kids think they are going to win, coming into the game. Those programs usually have an identity that kids buy into and believe in. Those programs have teams and kids who never think they are out of the game, deep down in their hearts, they feel their team and coaching staff is eventually going to figure out a way to win. If you are one of those type of programs, the great thing is your opposition is thinking the same thing. They are waiting for the other shoe to drop even if they are the better team.
How did I get this Reno team to get that type of confidence? Normally I would schedule a scrimmage against a weak opponent as part of this process, but the league made us play two scheduled scrimmage games already, so there was no need for that. We first talked about our identity, who we were and how we were going to win those early games. We were a running team that was going to come off the ball fast, play physical and consistently move the chains. Our team would be known for relentless consistent effort from the opening gun until the clock ran down to 0:00. We were going to be the most fundamentally sound and best blocking team in the league. We would impose our will, put defenses in conflict, then get into the most efficient play to attack the defenses weaknesses. We were going to protect the football and win the turnover battle. On defense we were going to limit big plays, gang tackle and create turnovers.
Talking about what our identity was is one thing, how to get the kids to believe in it is another. In practice when we were going really fast and nitpicking everything, I would share with the kids that no one was getting more quality reps in than they were. I even shared with them the math of how many more reps we were getting in than the typical youth football team. We constantly stressed that the level of detail and high standards we imposed were going to pay off in the end. We didn’t just teach the offensive and defensive schemes, we also shared why it would work, typically during water break teaching segments or short breaks in the action.
Sounds like just a bunch of big talk and propaganda right? Part of it was, but the propaganda also had some weight to it. I showed the kids a USA Today Top 20 article about Apopka, Floridas High School football team. The Blue Darters head coach Rick Darlington and I are good friends. We run very similar offenses and have even traded a few football plays back and forth. Rick’s teams have won 3 of the last 4 8A State Championships in Florida’s largest class using what is virtually our offense. One of the interesting things about Apopka is they usually do it without a wealth of talent. Rick’s teams often times play teams with 7-8 DI recruits, while having just 1-2 of his own. The year they beat Miami Northwest in the infamous fog game, Northwest had over 20 eventual DI recruits on that team, while rick had just one. I shared with our team my past teams successes and championships and the fact we’ve never lost a non-conference or out of state tournament game- ever. I even talked about the 1,000 plus testimonials on my web site and the 400 plus worst to first stories on it.
That week at every moment possible, I was the cheerleader, the encourager. Lots of smiles, lots of loud encouraging words and fist pumps were in order. A player carrying the ball high and tight, I was right there yelling and pointing, “THAT’S why we are going to win the turnover battle this week, GREAT job!” This wasn’t the time to nitpick and be critical.
In the huddle of the two scrimmage game wins, I talked about why a certain play was going to be successful. On one play I made a call with a small adjustment. I I looked our Fullback in the eye, smiled as I said, “this one’s going to score as long as you don’t fall down.” He came back to the huddle after a 20 yard TD run with a huge smile on his face. I couldn’t resist telling him “I told you.” Same for on our Hudl film, I would text box and telestrate to show kids why plays worked or why the defense created a big play. The kids needed to believe in the system and the coaching staff
I could see the kids starting to believe. Was it enough or were our kids just whistling through the graveyard? We would find out shortly.