3 ways to develop leadership in your youth football programs

By Terry Donovan | Posted 2/16/2018

Football season is a long way from beginning.  But any of you that are involved with your youth football programs, know that the season will be here in no time at all.  We use this time to evaluate and develop our current youth coaches, and recruit our programs’ next leaders. Remember that these are volunteers, and we want to have the right people and give them the tools to thrive in our programs. They are shaping our future athletes and leaving an indelible mark on these kids.

1. Recruitment

Recruiting at a young level has kind of a negative connotation. But in this instance, it is exactly what we are trying to do. We want the best candidates for our young athletes. In most communities, someone knows somebody with ties to youth sports and/or football. If they have coached other sports, you have a built-in resume of how they will conduct themselves and what value they can bring to your program. 

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This is the best tool you can use to evaluate prospective coaches. We want energy in our practices, and coaches that can bring that to our kids.  You can also look into someone with a football background who may be looking into getting back into coaching or a former player who wants to give back. However you accomplish it, recruiting people will give you a bigger talent pool when it’s time to pick your coaching staffs.

2. Evaluation

How do we assist our coaches in achieving greatness?  There are a couple ways. First, we evaluate all of our coaches in our program. We take a look back at the previous season and grade our youth football coaches. We will evaluate them on enthusiasm and interactions with the kids first. We want our program to be something that is fun and inclusive. Championships are not the focus here; providing an atmosphere that kids want to be part of is the main emphasis.

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Next, we look at the coaching they did. We do not expect Bill Belichick, but we want to make sure they are delivering our program’s message of our program. There needs to be one voice all the way through, and having the same message from our fourth-grade coaches to the varsity level is very important. 

One of our pillars as a USA Football Heads Up program is the shoulder tackling system, and we want to be certain that all the coaches who are teaching it are doing it correctly. There are many tools out there, and we are open to teaching new things, but we want to have standards that are taught the same ways from top to bottom in our program.

These fundamentals are the foundation of all players and the program’s future. For our program, it is easier to monitor all the coaches because I am not only the varsity offensive coordinator, but am the lead coach at our youth practices and can see all of them in action. We keep the playbook the same for all of our teams and make sure the coaching experience goes far beyond X’s and O’s.

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Our program, like many across our great nation, is about creating opportunity and inspiring our kids to be great kids as well as football players. One factor we can use as coaches who have been in our program for a couple of years is the retention of players from year to year. If every kid comes back out the following year, that coaching staff had a successful year. 

3. Training

Every spring, college and high school coaches attend clinics and visit with other coaching staffs to better themselves. We want our youth coaches to have this opportunity, too. We allow all of them to attend any clinics that we go to if they wish. As volunteer coaches, we know this is not always feasible.

So last spring, we started our annual football clinic for our whole coaching staff. We open it up to our second- and third-grade flag coaches and all of our program coaches in tackle as well. The varsity coaches are the presenters, and we will give a defensive topic, an offensive topic, a tackling seminar, and most importantly a leadership segment. We want to coach the kid, not the player. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” That’s as relevant in football as anything else.

We also help train in player and parent meetings and conduct on and off the field. We do not want coaches or parents berating officials at a youth or high school game. We are shaping the lives of the young athletes we are coaching and want to set an example for the type of competitors we want our player to be.  I have had the opportunity to attend the USA Football National Conference and hear people from Jon Gruden to Desmond Howard talk about the impact their youth football coaches had on them, and we make sure our coaches are aware of the role they will play in shaping the team of athletes they are coaching.

Most youth football organizations get volunteers with varying degrees of playing or coaching experience.  This is why we take the time to welcome our coaches and want them to be part of our football community. Take the time to find the right people in your organization, and arm them with the tools to make your program great, and your impact on these kids will be amazing.

Terry Donovan is a Master Trainer for USA Football’s Heads Up Football program. He is the offensive Coordinator and offensive line coach for Kasson-Mantorville High School in Kasson, Minnesota. He has coached with the U.S. National Team Program. He is also a youth coach and Director of Youth Development in the Kasson-Mantorville Youth Football Association.