Empowering Coaches Step-By-Step

The Big Game- The Week Leading Up to Game 1

sparks game 1 practice





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 area. This was filmed for an upcoming reality television show “Worst to First.” This is the week of practice leading up to that all important first game.

This team was big and pretty physical on the offensive line, the position group I spent about 80% of my individual practice time segment with.  We were very thin at the skill positions and one of our two way starters was having wind issues. Even though he was a very accomplished soccer player who had played all spring and summer on a select soccer team, he got winded very easily. While all of our team had made significant progress in their conditioning, this player would be visibly gassed after just a few snaps. He would be good to go after a couple of minutes out, but after he went back in, we would need to sub him out after 3-4 plays or suffer the consequences of him lead footing it.  It wasn’t an effort thing, it was something else. His brother, a seventh grader who was playing up, didn’t have that issue.

We had another two way skill position starter that seemed to get nicked up and come up limping after nearly every short open field tackling drill. We had another probable two way skill position starter that was missing about a third of practices due to feeling “nauseous” or because he had a temperature of 99.5 degrees. He had also missed a week of practice due to a family vacation. If everyone showed up and everyone stayed healthy we were probably OK, but that was a huge if. But what did I know? This was a new league to me, I didn’t have any game film of our team from last year and the team we were playing was new to the league. It made me feel blind and vulnerable. We were making progress, but would it be enough?

We were really behind and doing poorly with our passing game. The time we had invested in it, was showing very little fruit. It was so bad, the kids would put out a big cheer when we would finally complete a pass on air with no defenders. Even though we had invested in our Darrin Slack Quarterback drills and set aside time to work hard with our Receivers, we were still completing less than 30% of our passes on air. Our best Tight End would often times drop 4-5 in a row right on his hands. Meanwhile our only semi capable Receiver was only catching 6 or 7 out of 10 and he was also our starting Quarterback who got winded easily.

While we would continue to pour valuable practice time into developing our passing game as the season progressed at this point the investment had yielded very meager returns. This week we were going to concentrate what we could do and go all in to get this all important first game win. That meant we continued to cross train our skill position and in-space players to develop depth and install a handful of formation and blocking adjustments to use on offense and put in our zone scheme on defense. Special teams needed a lot of work too, we still didn’t have anyone who could field a punt and our PAT was terrible. Time was running out, I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz in that scene where the wicked witch had Dorothy on an hour glass and the sand was gushing out from the top to the bottom.

So practice this week would be a bit different. Instead of at least 60 minutes of individual work and another 20 in group, we would work more in team. The first practice of the week would be about 30 minutes of individual drills, 10 minutes of group and the rest, over an hour in team.

Another problem facing this team was making sure every player got his 8 minimum plays. Go back to post 1 about this team. //www.winningyouthfootball.com/wp-blog/?p=3916  We had been assigned 5 new players by the league, 4 of which were out of district kids that had been turned away to play from playing on the team in their district because they were “full” yeah right. Of the 4 out of district kids, one was a 66 lb rookie player cleared to play for the first time. Another player was an 81 lb rookie player who was in the bottom 25% for speed. They added an 89 lb rookie to us after week 1 who had some type of autoimmune issues that made him miss over 2/3 of the practices and drop out prior to game one. Another 130 lb rookie player couldn’t run 40 yards without stopping, athletically he was in the bottom 1% in the league. Kids who start playing football in the eighth grade against kids who have been playing for 6 years do so for a reason. You get the picture.

Then add in the fact that this team had won about 6 games in the previous 6 years and it created some issues. Yes we had some kids who could play, but the coaching staff had always played everyone. When you’re getting blown out by 50 points a lot of the time, everyone plays a lot. The coaches were nice, likeable guys who cared about the kids. So most of the very good athletes who could play, left the team for teams that were winning and a lot of the kids that would struggle for playing time on other teams and weren’t recruited away, stayed on the team.

We didn’t lose a single healthy player, we didn’t run anyone off, everyone was sticking it out even those tiny struggling first year rookies. Yes we had a logjam of kids that when they got into the game, they were going to struggle. This week we would do our best to prepare those weaker players to add value on the snaps they were in and to game plan in such a way to minimize any negative impact they might have on the team’s success. More on that this week.

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