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.”Week 4 was a Jekyll and Hyde week. At the beginning of the week, our youth football team looked very sharp. At times we looked like world beaters. The execution of our drills, offensive plays and defensive schemes looked sharp. We were reeling off runs of 12-13 perfect plays in a row under 15 seconds per play and getting near perfect with our defensive alignments during defensive recognition. There were lots of smiles and some confidence building in the hearts of our players and even in the eyes of our coaches and parents. Almost everyone seemed to be excited about the progress they were seeing.
But there was some dissatisfaction with a few. Those who have been coaching youth football for any length of time can relate to these very common issues. This is the time of year where youth football teams kind of shake out, it becomes evident who some of the starters are and what positions kids will most likely be playing for most of the season. A very popular starting Fullback was now playing Tight End, he just didn’t have the quickness to play Fullback and it didn’t look like he would start at Tight End either. The starting Center and coaches son was struggling a bit on his consistency and was being pushed by another player for playing time there.
Another coaches son who had started on both sides of the ball the previous year was now a third team player on offense and emergency player on defense. He weighed less than 80 lbs and his above average speed couldn’t make up for his lack of physicality. A Lineman with ok get off, a great attitude, but poor body control was moved into the backfield to shore up our lack of depth there. Another former Lineman was pushing the starting Quarterback for playing time. Add in that last years staring Quarterback was now a backup Fullback. Some of these moves raised eyebrows amongst both the coaches and parents.
With those problems simmering just below the surface, Hyde reared his ugly head at midweek. Buoyed by the success we had earlier in the week, the kids started letting off the gas. Instead of running all the way to the end of the line, they stopped a couple of steps short. Players became less vigilant about the finer coaching points, a 6 inch step now became a 9 inch or 3 inch step. Instead of trying to excel it looked like a number of kids were now trying to get by with just doing the minimum.
Week 4 was also the week we had started to dial up conditioning. Since we lacked so much depth at our skill position players, who would have to play both ways, conditioning was going to be critical to our success. While we had run fast paced practices and conditioned with our Deer Hunter, Hawaiian Rules Football and Team Catch Relays, this week I was enforcing the practice pace of 6 seconds per rep in Individual drills and 15 seconds per team rep. We had 17 practices under our belt, if we weren’t going fast now it was because of a lack of attentiveness or laziness.
A good number of the kids were struggling to keep up, especially in team when we would run plays against coaches with bags at the point of attack. We would run 11 new players in on every snap from about 20 yards away. Some of our coaches weren’t coaching hard and weren’t holding the kids accountable to perfection. I had to jump in several times to coach kids up who were fitted on a coach with a shield. Something they should have been doing. It was aggravating to see kids being allowed to do things wrong. I also had to call the cadence myself to make sure we got a play off every 15 seconds, it was a tug of war I wasn’t willing to lose. A little pep talk during water break one hadn’t done the trick so I had to raise my voice to reign everyone back in a number of times. I was a very frustrating and disappointing practice to put it mildly. That would be a lonely night for me back in my Reno hotel room, racking my brain for answers as to how we had come off track and having to deal with dissatisfied parents.
That week we had purposely quit adding in techniques and worked at perfecting what was already in. On defense that was 1-2 block destruction techniques, pursuit, one positioning read and a base tackling approach. The same for offense our linemen knew base block, down, double team, crab, wedge and pass blocking. Our pullers knew how to pull for power and sweep, we held off on G and Trap. We also held off on teaching Reach blocks and downfield blocks as well. The Running Backs had worked on just 2 ways to run through contact and 2 stiff arming techniques. We hadn’t bothered with jump cuts or even basic blocking reads as 2 of the Backs were kids who had never played in the backfield before and 2 kids had never played organized football before. Most of our time there was focused on blocking, protecting the football, ball get offs and accelerating into contact.
Since we weren’t adding in anything new and we knew almost all of the kids could do what we already had taught them, there wasn’t much wiggle room for making mistakes. Maybe the kids got bored, maybe they got complacent, maybe they got overconfident, they may even have gotten lazy. In any event there was a lot of running going on that day. We had passed the point where “I didn’t know” was a valid excuse. A handful of players didn’t understand when I said we run something out to a cone 20 yards down the field, that doesn’t mean 18 yards. Of when a fake is supposed to be carried out full speed for 10 yards a 5 yard jog doesn’t suffice.
Midweek practice was abysmal, no progress was made and I saw a bunch of the football moms talking amongst themselves. Some coaches were frustrated too, I had called them out just like I had the players. There was trouble in paradise. The next day there would be talks of quitting, defections and mutiny.