Copyright 1999 John T. Reed

As a non-football coach for the first time in ten years, I get to watch other coaches' games this season. I think you see more when you have no interest in the outcome. You certainly are more objective.

The youth football I had the most involvement with is what is known in soccer as "traveling teams." That is, our town had four teams for each of the four different age-and-weight classes and we had our away games at other towns, some as many as four hours drive away.

One of the leagues I observed was a one-town league. It's like Little League. They have a tryout and a draft and all teams play on the same fields every week. Each team plays each opponent three times during the regular season. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but like animals and plants on an isolated island, with no outside influence, they have evolved strangely. For one thing, their refs turn a blind eye to many penalties like false starts and offsides. I thought this was odd since the kids in question were eleven and up. At the first youth game I ever saw, between 8- to 10-year-old teams, there were zillions of false-start flags. This one-town league also plays a rather gentle brand of tackle football. No crash of pads is heard when the ball is snapped. Only the few good athletes on each team hit. They do normal kickoffs and kick returns, but they punt like a flag league in which I coached---no rush. Ditto for PAT kicks. It looked silly and is silly. What are the grownups in charge afraid of? That someone might be struck by a football? This is a tackle league with full equipment!

I focused on one player at a time to see how they were performing. First the right tackle, then the right guard, then the center, and so forth. Only about two or three players were doing what they were supposed to: the quarterback, running back, and maybe one other back. The linemen and wide receivers sort of put their hands up in the direction of the nearest bad guy. Sometimes they went over to him and gave him a gentle shove. Other times it was clear that they were just protecting themselves from his coming in their direction.

One team ran a no-huddle and signalled the plays in from the sideline. But only three or four players ever showed any interest in what play was being run. The linemen never even looked at the play board. They did the same thing, which was sort of gently bump the nearest guy, on every snap regardless of what play was called.

Rarely did I see an actual play executed. In general, all that was happening was that a really good athlete was getting the ball and either getting into the open field or not. It was essentially him alone against about five or six defenders. The rest of the players on the field were simply making a momentary gesture at blocking or rushing after the snap then turning to watch the play.

One of the unique characteristics of youth sports compared to higher level sports is the enormous disparity between the best and worst players. Actually, there is an enormous disparity between the best and average players. In general, the starting lineup of the high school team in this town I observed will be composed of the single best player from each of these youth teams. The rest of the youth players will drop out of football or be cut or warm the bench in high school. The best player in the one-town youth league will be an all-league running back in high school. The players who are trying to tackle him in youth football will be at chess club meetings on Friday nights when they get to high school. Somewhere out there in youth football land, future Heisman Trophy winners are carrying the ball against kids who have virtually no athletic ability or interest. Such matchups are little or no contest and, as such, require little or no coaching.

So about all you need to do to win on many youth football teams is pitch the ball to your really fast athletic guy, tell him to run around end, momentarily delay the nearest one or two defenders at the corner, and wish the fast kid luck. I once heard a youth coaching staff say all they were going to do that season was pitch it to Darren or whomever and let him run sweeps. As I recall, they either won the league championship or came in second. This bears more resemblance to tag than football.

Some coaches (like those) would respond, "Whatever works." If your approach is to just toss the ball to your fastest guy and rely on his eluding or outrunning the contain man, why are you out there at practice three nights a week making the kids do all that stuff? Why are you wasting your time and theirs? Just teach the QB and running back the snap and toss. Show him which direction the sweep plays go. And teach the line how to stay set until the ball is snapped. You can do all that the first day, then cancel all subsequent practices. "See you at the games, guys." The purpose of practice is to lift your team above that one play, and to include players other than the running back in the team's success.

At one game, I saw the team of a coach that had read my Coaching Youth Football book execute the inside-wing reverse play from my book. It was a good call for the situation---third and long. The whole team executed the play correctly, and it went 25 yards or so. The entier line had to sustain blocks because it is a slow-developing play. The blocking back had to execute a trap block and the wing had to go to the right hole. It was a team play in what is supposed to be a team sport. The play was well-designed, well-coached, and well-executed. It was rewarding, or should have been, for all involved.

You should grade each of your players on their game performance. The grade says how well they carried out their assignment on the play in question. College coaches do this. I realize you do not have as much time as they do. So you simply grade fewer plays. Just grading one play will tell you a lot. If you grade from A to F, the typical high school team would average about a B and the typical college or pro team an A. The typical youth team would grade out as a D or an F. That is, about seven to nine guys would get an F for making little or no effort to block the correct guy in the correct way, or they would block the wrong guy. Two or three guys, usually backs, would get an A or a B.

In fact, all well-coached teams should grade A no matter what the level. Lower level teams should try to do fewer things, but they ought to do those few things at an A level. The reason youth teams would grade as an F is that the coaches do not know what they are doing. They have too many plays. They do not grade their players and therefore are unaware of all the F's. Even when they do grade their players, they do not understand why the kids won't do what they were told. The purpose of coaching is to raise each player as high as possible above the grade of F that rookie football players almost all start at. Every player who starts at F and stays there until the end of the season represents a failure by the coach. The grade that the players earn as a team or as a position group is really the grade of their coach.

In a league where all coaches grade at F and one grades at D, the D wins the league championship. But coaches should not use winning alone as the measure of their performance because the standards are so low in youth football. In youth football, a competent coach who has a reasonable amount of talent ought to go undefeated and win his games easily because of the dismal quality of opposing coaches.

I have received a great number of contacts from youth coaches who say that using my books has enabled them to go undefeated or 10-1 and so forth. But when I visit these coaches in person, I find that all I have done is taught them how to move from an F to a D or a C minus, which is enough for them to do well because the rest of the coaches in their league are still at the F level. One coach told me after I visited his practice and showed how I did some things, that, "We have raised our standards as a result of your visit." Apparently I have failed to convey in my books the proper level of coaching effort and standards.

Mostly, the problem is coaches asking the kids to do the right thing as they learned in my books, hearing excuses from the kids as to why they cannot do that, or the kids just silently refuse to do it. The coaches erroneously accept the situation and tolerate the crappy execution. Then I arrive, dismiss the excuses out of hand, and insist on correct execution. The coaches seem surprised that you can push the kids that hard and demand such high standards. If you have ever managed people for a period of years in a particular field, you probably evolved from a lenient, excuse-accepting, weak manager in the beginning, to a "Don't give me that crap" hard-nose in later years. You need to do the same in youth football.

There are certain skills and techniques that players resist very strongly. They are:

The reason most youth coaches who have read my books still only get a D or C minus is that they are too lenient in these areas. You must set the standard and demand that it be met. What you emphasize, you achieve. You cannot just teach, request, plead for these things. Saying "Low man wins" until you are blue in the face is dumb if it is not working, which it won't. You must teach that low man wins. But once you see that the kid apparently doesn't care enough about winning to stay low, you must find another more effective way to motivate him, like making him do it right five times for every time he does it wrong. Or ten. Whatever it takes. You must demand correct execution. You must give whatever rewards and punishments it takes to achieve the proper standard.

Some coaches are reluctant to do this because they feel like they are being mean to the kids. This is analogous to making a kid buckle up, wear a bike helmet, clean his room, do his homework, or eat his vegetables. Parents do their kids no favors when they do not insist on those things. Neither do coaches when they let a player get away with unsafe or high-failure-probability sloppiness.

There are also a number of things that youth coaches resist very strongly. They are:

Good luck,

John T. Reed