A good youth football feeder program can help your high-school team and a bad one, or none at all, can hurt. Somebody who read this told me that was obvious. If it’s so obvious, how come virtually every high-school coach I have known about has ignored his local youth football programs?

Prevent losing great athletes to soccer

The main function of a youth football program—from the perspective of a high school football coach—is to prevent the best athletes in the community from choosing soccer by default. In my area, soccer starts at age 7; football, at age 8. Some of the best athletes do well in soccer as seven-year olds, then are reluctant to switch sports when they turn eight. They are not sure they would be good at football, but they know they are good at soccer. High-school coaches should try to make sure their community has a youth-football program equal to the youth soccer program in

Don’t drive good athletes away from football

Another problem for high-school coaches is youth football coaches who drive away good athletes. If you want to know what high school football was like 30 years ago, go to a youth football practice. There you will often see middle-aged men putting nine- and ten-year old boys through a grueling regimen of calisthenics, grass drills, full-speed hitting drills.

Many such youth football coaches convince parents and players that football is a sadistic, Bataan Death March sort of experience. These kids choose soccer or water polo as their fall sport. High-school coaches should try to bring their local youth coaches up to date: Use stretching, not calisthenics and grass drills. Use half-speed drills and walk-throughs; not so much full-speed hitting.

Don’t be indifferent

Youth coaches greatly admire local high school coaches and are eager for advice. But the majority of high-school coaches that I have known or heard about are indifferent at best, and contemptuous at worst, toward their local youth coaches.

Oddly, I have found that NFL and college coaches are more respectful of youth coaches than high school coaches. My theory is that the college and NFL coaches are secure and confident about their place in the football world. They have no need to put anyone down to feel good about their status. Many high-school coaches—especially position coaches—do have a need to put down youth coaches in order to feel better about themselves.

Our parents and players used to express amazement at our high-school coaches’ utter lack of interest in our program. High school administrators had helped start our youth program because they thought it would help the varsity. Both the youth and high-school players practiced and played on the same high school fields. We wore the same colors. The high school was the Grizzlies. We were the Bears. We used the same fight song. Our kids and their parents thought of themselves as future Grizzlies. But my sons and many others from that youth program transferred to other high schools—to a large extent because the Grizzlie coaches were so uninterested in us during our youth-football days.

‘Just fundamentals’

When cornered by a youth coach seeking advice, the typical high school coach responds with something like, “Just teach fundamentals. Don’t worry about winning. And teach our offensive and defensive systems.”

Youth coaches don’t know fundamentals. They are a motley crew of former high school and college players who have only faded memories and TV color men to guide them. They can teach fundamentals, but only after they learn how from you or some other source.


Another problem with focusing on fundamentals is youth coaches do not have much time for that. The key word in youth football is assignments, not fundamentals. Before you can worry about how to block, you must first know whom to block. With practice limited to two hours a night, three nights a week, and most starters playing both ways, youth coaches have their hands full just teaching who does what on each play. They must teach some fundamentals like tackling and how to receive a snap and do a hand off, but they do not have much time for the fine points of the one-on-one drive block or the break out of a backpedal.

The truth is most youth coaches spend far too much time on fundamentals and not anywhere near enough time on assignments.


Not worrying about winning is nonsense. Scoring more points that the opponent is the object of the game. Those who sincerely want to eliminate emphasis on winning, as opposed to just being politically correct, should stop keeping score. If they did, youth sports would disappear overnight. Those who advocate not caring about winning in youth sports are like the Congressmen who ostentatiously vote for a bill they secretly oppose, but know has no chance of passing. The only youth league that truly tries to ignore winning that is Little League tee ball (6- and 7-year olds). And even then the kids (from both teams) gleefully meet their arriving parents with cries of “We won!”

Football is a great sport for building character, having fun, and all that. But those benefits are natural by-products of an intelligent, ethical pursuit of victories. You do not need to renounce winning to have a worthwhile youth program.

Youth players and coaches want to succeed. Take an interest in your youth football teams so you can give intelligent advice on how the coaches can better prepare their kids to succeed individually and as a team on Saturday.


Both winning and losing are habits. Many youth-football programs are perennial league doormats. As a high-school coach, I would shudder at the thought of getting freshman who were coming off six years of losing almost all their youth games. Players and parents in such youth programs are invariably well practiced at making excuses for losing. The high-school coach who inherits them will be greatly handicapped by their conviction that it is impossible for their community to win in football.

Our youth team was a doormat when my colleagues and I arrived. Within two years, we were perennially in the final four of a 32-team league. When youth players from those teams reached our doormat local high school, it had the first back-to-back winning seasons in its history. I suspect that both the mere existence of our youth program, as well as our success at the youth level, were factors in the varsity’s recent new-found success.

Coordinating schemes

Urging or demanding that the local youth team use the high-school’s offensive and defensive schemes is an enormous mistake. Few of the youth players will play in that scheme at that high school. 73% of youth players quit all sports by age 13 (Time magazine cover story 7/12/99). Five or six members of the typical youth team will move out of town before junior year of high school. Several youth-football players will decide to play other high-school sports in the fall or specialize in one sport year round. The local high-school coach may leave before today’s 10-year olds reach age 16. Or he may decide to change schemes. The few youth players who grow up to be high-school football players in the same area generally end up scattered among several private and public schools. Of course, this is all a function of the age of the youth players. Many of the oldest youth players—12-14—will play football for the local high school. But relatively few of the 7- to 10-year olds will.

When I was a youth coach, our local high-school varsity head coach said we should be running his schemes. He was 1-8-1. I half jokingly told him he should be running our schemes. We were 9-2. He was not amused. He was also fired. His successor left, too, before my youth players reached the varsity. And the third coach was fired before the end of our youth players’ senior year.

In fact, neither of us should have been running the other’s schemes. Youth football is different from high-school football. Most youth players are non-athletes. Your high-school linemen typically did not play youth football at all because they could never make weight. Youth linemen are about the same size as youth backs because of age-weight limits.

Youth football has minimum-play rules—typically 2 to 14 plays for each kid on the team. These force youth coaches to alter their offense and defense from what would make sense at the high-school level.

Primarily running game

Youth football, as you would expect, is primarily a running game. About the only youth passes that can be executed consistently are a one-step drop look-in and a tailback pass—both of which are easy to stop with the right defense. Sprint out and waggle passes also work well, but most youth coaches do not know that.

The main youth play is the pitch sweep to the fastest kid. To stop that, youth teams generally need to box the wide-side contain man. High-school teams, whose main concern is usually the off-tackle play, would never box a contain man. The other successful youth running play is the blast or iso. Stopping it with weak athletes requires a gap-8 type defense. Misdirection works well at the youth level, but is not used as much as it should be.

Youth pass defenders generally do not succeed with zone coverage. Man free bump works best for them.


There is also the issue of coach autonomy. How would you like it if your local college team had the power to make you run their schemes? If they told you not to worry about winning? Youth coaches, like any other coaches, want to make their own decisions and want to succeed.

They may well run your system, but only if you encourage it with a carrot rather than a stick. Invite them to your practices, meetings, and games. Give them a clinic on why you run your schemes and how you coach them. But do not dictate or talk down to them. Watch a few youth-football games from the sideline so you can see the unique aspects of that level and thereby give intelligent, well-thought-out advice to your local youth coaches.


Youth-football programs can provide needed manpower for your high-school program: boosters, scouts, chain gangs, ticket sellers, and so forth. Although youth football is not a fertile ground for finding high-school coaches, in my experience, about 3% of youth coaches are better than the average freshman or JV coach and better than many varsity coaches.

Someone asked where I got that statistic. I coached youth football for nine seasons; high school for six. All three of my sons played high school football. There were about seven coaches on each of those teams. There were three other teams associated with the team where I coached. They practiced and played on the same fields at the same time or before or after our games. So I was close to 9 x 7 x 4 = over 250 coaches for fifteen seasons. I also have scouted over a hundred games. And I talk by phone to youth coaches from around the world on almost a daily basis. My best guess is that about 3 out of every 100 are serious about learning how to be excellent football coaches.

With or without you

Fall youth sports will happen in your community with or without you. They have the power to take away, or drive away, your best future players. They have the power to brainwash your future players into believing that they have no hope of defeating your opponents. Or, with some thoughtful effort on your part, they can serve as an excellent recruiting and training mechanism.

Youth tackle veterans are about two years ahead of their rookie peers when they get to high school. A good youth feeder program can inculcate confidence, love of the game, teach kids the rules and rhythms of football, get rookies over their fear of hitting, and deliver seasoned veterans who can lead by example on your freshman and J.V. teams. The choice is yours.