On December 4 and 5, 1999, I watched six youth football games. I made a number of observations that coaches may find helpful. Copyright 1999


As usual, the passing was awful. One team, the Manteca Chargers JV had a sensible passing scheme, but even they apparently had not given their quarterback enough repetitions of the interception-avoiding phase of the passing game. [The coach of that team called me. He said that was the first interception the kid had thrown all year. I stand corrected.] Coaches tend to practice completions, but not interception avoidance.

In many cases, the quarterback threw an accurate pass, but the receiver dropped it because he had not been taught how to catch. Youth receivers tend to be decent at catching passes in which the quarterback can see the receiver's front jersey numbers when he throws the ball. But they are generally lousy at catching passes thrown when the quarterback can only see the receiver's back jersey numbers. These would be deep passes where the receiver is running away from the quarterback. I have seen this same problem in baseball: kids have trouble going back on balls.

The mistake they make is they try to turn around and face the pass. They twist their upper bodies. They turn around and backpedal. This spinning and pirouetting slows them down and makes a well-thrown pass look overthrown. In fact, the public-address announcers during these games often said the ball was overthrown, when in fact it was on the money, but the receiver went spastic as it arrived.

This is a relatively easy problem to fix. You should do easy-up and wrong-shoulder drills. In an easy-up drill, the receiver simply runs downfield while the passer lobs a ball up so the receiver can catch it in stride while jogging downfield. There is not so much a special technique to this as just giving them an opportunity to do it over and over so they stop panicking when the situation comes up in a game. It's really an easy catch because you and the ball are going the same direction so the ball seems to be going in slow motion and floats into your hands.

In the wrong-shoulder drill, the receiver runs inward in front of the passer at an angle like a slant route and looks over his inside shoulder. The passer deliberately lobs the pass so it comes down over the receiver's outside shoulder. The receiver must spin his head around and refind the ball looking over his outside shoulder. Again, there is no great technique. You just need to give them reps so they relax and stop panicking when they have to do this in a game.

There is one trick to catching passes thrown from behind the receiver. He should keep his shoulders perpendicular to his path. If he turns his upper body, it will slow him down. He should turn his head only. Furthermore, he turns the head only enough so that he can see the ball out of one eye. Turning it enough to see it out of two eyes will force him to turn his shoulders. As the ball arrives, he can turn to see it with two eyes unless he has to reach way out for it. This is a trick that must be taught. The kids will take forever to figure it out for themselves.

Players in the games I watched often searched for a ball in flight by rotating their heads straight back as if they were looking at the sky. That will really slow you down. Do not let your receivers do that. You turn the head sideways only, not up.

Receivers also tend to let their routes peter out speedwise because the longer the play goes on, the more they figure there will be no pass, even though they cannot see what is going on with the quarterback. Then they see there is a pass after all, but they cannot catch up to it because they slowed down. You must discipline them to maintain an even speed.


One of the teams I saw was the T-Bird midgets, a team I coached in 1997. Their head coach has a neat little wall-right punt return. I wrote about my version of it in my Coaching Youth Flag Football book. He used it twice on Saturday and got excellent returns each time. But both were called back for clipping and they ended up starting about ten yards behind where they caught the punts.

Preventing clipping is part of coaching this play. It is an undeniable fact that long runs in youth football are often called back for clipping. You have to coach aggressively to prevent this. I quit the San Ramon Bears in 1996 in part because they prohibited me from benching a player for the rest of the game who clipped and nullified the only kickoff-return touchdown I ever had in youth football. Since 1991, it has been my standard policy to bench a kid for the rest of the game if he drew any 15-yard penalty. That is still my policy and it will be if I ever coach again.

I found that I could eliminate clipping almost entirely, but only by making a speech about it on the first day of practice, going a little nuts every time it happened in practice, and having and enforcing my benching policy. Lesser measures did not work. My teams were penalized about once every two or three games. I cannot believe all the penalties other coaches tolerate. Almost every youth penalty kills the drive in which it occurs, and you only get six to eight possession per game.

If you've got a great punt return or kickoff return, but it gets called back on clipping, you've really got the worst kick return in the league. Your team needs a new punt-return coach if your punt-return team clips.

Quick count

I do not like counts, but an occasionally effective trick is to walk up to the line and pop off a sneak before your line even gets down. However, it can also lead to a false-start penalty, as it did once in the games I observed. You have to practice it with an eye toward preventing infractions.

Do not kick to a human

Through all six games, all but one team behaved as if there we a rule requiring a kicking or punting team to kick to a returner. I want all punts and kickoffs on the ground. I do not ever want a kick of ours to be caught in the air.

Multiple lead blockers

What works in youth-football offense, no matter how many years I observe, is plays with one, and preferably more than one, lead blocker. Other plays, like the dive, rarely work.

Clock management in youth football is a disgrace. The coaches do not even make the slightest effort at trying to do it right.

Good luck

John T. Reed