Empowering Coaches Step-By-Step

Responding to a Loss in Youth Football- Worst to First

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If you’ve been coaching youth football for any length of time, you know the adage is true ”you never play as well as you think you did and you never play as poorly as you thought you did.” After watching the film, I didn’t feel as badly about the loss as I had earlier. This is the continuing story of my “Worst to First” youth football coaching experience in Reno, Nevada this year. This is the pilot season that was shot for the reality television show “Worst to First”  I took an eighth grade team that had won about six games in the last six years to the Semi-Finals in the largest and most competitive league in the Reno/North Nevada area

While we won game one 54-20, we had lost to the defending league champion 48-14 in game two. We consistently moved the ball, without the five turnovers and the penalty, we easily score 35 points. Defensively we were without a starting Linebacker and then in the second quarter we lose our other starting Linebacker, an area we were already very thin at. Without the turnovers deep in our own territory, we hold them to 28 or at worst case 35. If we stay healthy and clean up some of our Special Teams miscues, we are in that game down to the wire.

But more of the same just wasn’t going to cut it, I was going to make some major changes this week. First off, I talked to the kids and showed them how close we were. Their effort was praised, nearly all the kids had competed hard and wanted to win. I guaranteed them we would solve the turnover issue, an entire post will be dedicated to that his week. From a personnel standpoint, we were going to go with the kids I could trust were going to be there when we needed them most. We were going with the kids who weren’t limping off of nearly every full speed tackling drill or were “sick” all the time.  I only shared that with my trusted confidante “the Mayor” coach B. Without his constant encouragement and counsel, the season would have been a disaster.

After that very short but positive talk. we proceeded to have a “fun” practice. Nothing negative, we played some Hawaiian Rules football and did some pass catching relay games to start.  From there we went right into team, but there were some big changes in the depth chart. Instead of the usual 60 minutes if indys and group, we went right to team for a reason. Our best athletes weren’t always starting, I was going with a lineup of kids who weren’t late to practice, who were working the Character Development Program and who were all-in team players.

That slow former Lineman now third team Blocking Back was now starting at both the Three Back spot and Linebacker. A backup Tight End who was too slow to play the position was promoted to second team Fullback ahead of our itinerantly ill second teamer. Our backup and starting Wingback players now shared the starting Quarterback role. Our starting Fullback now worked a lot of reps at Blocking Back as well because our former starting Quarterback was our backup there. Our starting Quarterback had been demoted to third team at both backfield spots, he also lost his starting Linebacker spot. We moved him to a Safety where he would get less contact and where the move would be perceived as a demotion. I had come to find out in previous seasons he had pulled himself out of big games with minor injuries only to show up the next day at practice injury free. A smart, likeable, hard working good athlete- but someone that needed something to help him get over that mental hurdle.

The change in personnel forced us to move to a Cover Three look on defense and allowed us to move the Monster in our Zone package to Linebacker. We also gave an equal number of reps to our backup Center. It was very obvious all positions were up for grabs again. In reality they always are.

Anyone late to practice, would move to the back of the depth chart that day in practice and get minimum reps. They would be relegated to the back of the line in group and rarely were allowed to work in with the first team group. That meant we had some very awkward looking team practices, without our best players on the first team. Every time one of those backups who were now starting made a good play, they were praised up one side and down the other. We also added “twenty things I like” to our Character Development program to prop those committed guys up, which we will post on it’s own next week.

As the week progressed, I could tell everyone was waiting for us to go back to putting the best athletes in their starting spots. They were thinking, how long can this go on, when is this ruse going to end? It didn’t, we were going to play the kids that we could count on to play in the Championship game the week of Thanksgiving. We had to develop those kids and if the others could prove themselves by being on time, being consistent and competing against good competition, that was on them. In the meantime I was going to coach up the guys I could depend on and roll with them.

Our athletes knew we were short skill position kids and thought they had me over a barrel. I was calling their bluff, win or lose I was going to play the kids who were committed, no matter who they were or what kind of athlete they were. From a fundamentals and scheme perspective, we optimized on what the starting kids could do and completely stopped throwing the ball in practice.

Of the two kids we now had sharing the Quarterback spot, only one could throw the ball, but he was also the only player we had who could catch more than 7 out of 10 balls thrown against an air defense.  The other starter was a second year player, but this was his first year playing in the backfield. Our second best Receiver who could catch about 5 of 10 balls thrown on air was the itinerant backup Fullback who we would move around to Wing or End. But I had NO intention of rewarding him with the football. Unfortunately I knew of no play where a Quarterback could throw the ball to himself, so our passing game was going to take a backseat for now.

There would be more rebellion this week from the parents and coaching staff. More on that in the next post. Hopefully this exercise will help you no matter where you are coaching youth football or what age group you coach.  The problems we all face every year aren’t so different and the solutions shared are ones you can use yourself.

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2 Comments

  1. J Schroeder

    Awesome stuff Dave. Great insight on how you run your programs. I’m interested in the first kid you had at QB. What else could you do with him to spark his confidence more? I have experienced this in the past with players and it’s very frustrating. How do you make them want to make a play for your team? I’ve seen where demoting him in his positions or moving him into a role where he has less responsibility, actually makes him happy. Then doesn’t want to move back to where you need him.

    Reply
    1. davecisar

      Coach, thank you.

      Every kid is different. I’ve had kids who shined coming off the bench, who actually preferred not being in the limelight, not being “the guy.” I had a kid like that in Reno this past season.

      For him, I just stayed positive and put him in right away. If he was playing hard and in all but one game he did, I kept him in. I just let him know we needed him and that I was going to go to him early and often. He just shied from the limelight.

      The kid in this post was different. he liked being the guy when we played teams we could dominate. When the competition got difficult, he would look for a soft place to land. I liked the kid and if you follow how this plays out, he overcomes a lot of his fears as the season progresses.

      Our Character Development program helps quite a bit, bringing kids together. It demonstrates the value of commitment, perseverance and teamwork. Pledge cards also might help, kids share a pledge or commitment they are making to the team for that one game.

      I use both positive and negative reinforcement. Encouraging and rewarding all signs of improvement and handing out less playing time and depriving the ball when I’m not seeing kids playing to potential.

      Again every kid is different. THis year one kid who I was told was borderline, was given the biggest leadership role on the team. With the added responsibility he thrived.

      Reply

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