Most of the mistakes youth football coaches make fall under the category of trying to imitate higher levels of football. Coaches want to do what they see on TV in college and pro games. Or they want to imitate the local high school or their own high school or college team's approach.

That does not work because there are significant systemic differences between youth and higher level football.

Not as far or as fast

The most obvious difference is that kids cannot throw or kick as far as older players and they cannot run as fast. Youth coaches seem well aware of that, but do not seem to grasp its implications. Because youth players cannot throw very far, all youth defense is like goal-line defense at the higher levels. At the higher levels, the passer cannot throw very far in a goal-line situation because of the end line (back of the end zone). In youth football, the same cannot-throw-very-far situation applies, but for a different reason: weak arms. But the reason is irrelevant. The conclusion intelligent youth coaches must draw is that their defense should resemble only the goal-line defenses of the higher levels. But the vast majority of youth coaches mimic the midfield defenses of the higher levels. They take some of their defenders and assign them to zone defense covering ground which the opposing passer cannot reach after he drops back.

Kids cannot punt very far. They also do a much poorer job of protecting the punt. So a youth punt has much more risk and much less reward than a higher level punt. At the lowest level, the typical net change in line of scrimmage after an unreturned punt is 15 yards. I still think you should punt. We were successful punting at the lowest (8-to 10-year-old) levels. But there should be far more fake punts because of the skewed risk-reward ratio. However, the typical youth coach regards the fake punt with the same fear as an NFL coach. If he does a fake punt and it fails he loses that fabulous 15-yard change in field position he would have gotten if he punted. This is crazy thinking.

Talent spectrum

When my oldest son went to play football in college, he told me his roommate was a wide receiver. I then asked a question that would be appropriate at the youth or even high school levels, but not at the college level. "Does he have good hands?" "Dad," my son explained, "at Columbia, all the receivers have good hands."

Makes sense when you think about it. Youth and high school teams are drawn from a relatively small geographical area. College and pro teams are drawn from a region or from the nation at large. At the college and pro level, there are even players from foreign countries. College teams, even at the lowest level, are all-star teams compared to high-school teams. Columbia finished last in the Ivy League in 1999, but their media guide describes each player’s high school background and they are almost invariably impressive: all-state, all-region, team captain, MVP. This describes the guys at every position!

Also, a great many of the non-linemen were either quarterbacks or tailbacks in high school. My son’s wide receiver roommate was his team’s quarterback his senior year in high school. My son was a tailback in both high school and college. The Columbia defensive backs were generally quarterbacks or tailbacks in high school. Imagine what you could do on your youth team if it was composed 80% of the best quarterbacks and tailbacks in your state, and the rest of the biggest, most athletic linemen.

Percentile rankings

If you rank football players on a percentile basis, the difference between youth and higher levels is astounding. There are 1.8 million football players. Only about 1,300 play in the NFL. That means they are the top 1,300 ÷ 1,800,000 = .075% which is another way of saying they are in the 100 - .00075 = 99.99925th percentile. There are about 10,000 scholarship football players. They and the Arena League and NFL Europe probably total about 12,000 which is the top 13,300 ÷ 1,800,000 = .7389% or the 100 - .007389 = 99.99261st percentile. There are 1,000,000 high school football players, so they are in the top 1,013,300 ÷ 1,800,000 = 56.294%. Youth football players are the bottom 44%.

Actually, most non-linemen NFL players probably played youth football and some current youth players are no doubt future NFL guys. But the average youth-football program has probably had one or none in its history. Your youth team probably consists of nobody who will play college or pro football, five kids who will play high school football, and twenty kids who will never letter in a varsity high school sport.

The typical major college team consists almost entirely of players who were all-state in high school. (There are fifty all-state teams and 115 major college teams. College starting teams typically consist primarily of juniors and seniors—two years worth of all-state teams. So every two years the high schools produce 100 all-state teams for the 115 major college teams.) The typical youth team has no future all-state high school players.

In short, all the players on the college and pro teams were superstars in high school and youth football; none of your players will be. The college and pro coaches get to execute offensive and defensive plays with great athletes at every position. You have some good athletes, some kids who will warm the bench in high school, and a bunch of kids who will be in the band or audio-visual club in high school.

What do you think your local high-school varsity head coach would do if he were suddenly ordered to get rid of all but five of his starting lineup and replace them with his bench warmers and members of the band and audio-visual club? Do you suppose he might run a different offensive and defensive scheme? You’re darned right he would.

Where would that high-school coach put his five good players? They’d go both ways. He would have to use bench warmers for running backs and receivers. And the line would be made up of band and audio-visual club members members. Probably gonna have to get away from the drop-back passing game, don’t you think?

When a major college coach decides to run a 4-3 defense, he gets to put all-state guys at every position. The above-mentioned high-school coach will have to put two good players at linebacker, one at line, and two at defensive back. The remaining linemen will be heavy bench warmers and tuba players. He’ll have a couple of trombone players at linebacker and strong safety and the rest of the defensive backs will be from the audio-visual club.

You can laugh at this, until you realize that I am describing your current youth-football team. Now tell me again how you’re gonna run the West Coast offense and 46 defense with zone blitzing. Do you think your tuba player will be in a mismatch if he has to cover a future high-school all-league tailback when he drops back because of a zone blitz? Will the tight end you converted to quarterback be able to get the ball to the former sixth-string receiver on the fade pattern? And will that sixth-string receiver catch the ball given the fact that he dropped 75% of the balls thrown to him this season in practice?

Size spectrum

College and pro linemen are generally not veterans of youth football. Why? Because they were always too big to meet youth football weight limits. They, too, are generally team MVPs, all-league, and all-region. At a major college, the heaviest linemen weigh twice as much as the lightest defensive backs. In youth football, the defensive backs and linemen weigh about the same.

So stop trying to use the schemes from the higher levels. They have a totally different challenge than you do.

Good luck,

John T. Reed