As young athletes and their families kick off inspiring and exciting youth football seasons in communities across the country, their leagues embrace new ways to deliver America’s favorite sport in a 21st century fashion.
Advancements in how youth football coaches prepare themselves to teach the sport and serve kids under their care through USA Football’s accredited coach certification propels our game through education. The coaching vocation in youth sports often rests on the shoulders of a parent, who, in addition to the duties in their own lives, now have a responsibility and opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of dozens of children.
USA Football recently spoke each of the 14 head football coaches in the Big Ten Conference to ask them what their advice would be to these hardworking men and women who may be getting their first real taste of coaching. Here’s what some of them had to say:
"I think football is the greatest teacher of life there is, so let’s not do anything that drives a young person away from the game. The longer they stay involved in the game, the more influential the game’s going to be in their adult life. The mindset doesn’t have to be ‘win at all costs’, nor does it have to be ‘win or lose, it doesn’t matter as long as you’re doing it.’ I think there’s a happy medium where young people can learn to compete and be with people who are unlike them and accept them for who they are, and learn to grow together, and that’s what I think this game does."
--Greg Schiano, Rutgers University
"I think the first time we all played the game is because we wanted to have fun, and as the competition level rises and the stakes become a little steeper, I’ve always tried to remind the guys of that. Even while I was coaching with the [New England] Patriots, we talked about how the games need to be fun, and we need to keep that perspective at all levels, especially in youth football."
--Bret Bielema, University of Illinois
“First of all, we want to be appreciative of the mothers and fathers who donate their time, which is hard, given that they work hard and provide for their family. Raising children is hard enough without taking on another responsibility, but now volunteering to coach the game of football and be involved in youth athletics is something we should appreciate.
“I think since it is a contact sport and there are physical aspects to the game, we want to make sure that we’re being strategic about when is the appropriate time for that contact to happen, from a developmental standpoint, to make sure that the lessons and the experiences that these young people have is coming from a good place. You have to realize there is an extra level of responsibility involved in understanding the game and some of the fundamentals and techniques and the importance of teaching those in a safe and proper way. I know that’s easier said than done but you’re going to have to take the time to educate your staff, your team and your league to do it the right way.”
--James Franklin, Penn State University
“Always put the kids first. What we’re doing as coaches is constantly impacting the future of their lives. What you say and how you say it, especially to young kids, is going influence the rest of their life. You could literally take away someone’s interest for the game or install this massive passion for the game, you have that control as a youth coach. Do as much as you can to learn about the game, and we have so many resources to help people learn about the game, and so we are even seeing now in our society that people who didn’t even play the game can coach the game. Do everything you possibly can, keep it fun, make sure that you inspire the kids to want to continue to play it, and make sure what you say and how you say it is going to inspire someone to stay in the game for a long time.”
--P.J. Fleck, University of Minnesota
“Make it fun for the kids and keep the focus on them. There’s technique involved in it and a rhyme and a reason for everything. If you can make it fun for the kids, then it’s going to be a really good experience for them.”
--Mel Tucker, Michigan State University
“There are some kids who would take to the physical side of football right away, and others who might need a slower adjustment to it, and one size doesn’t fit all. Be aware of your players’ needs and try to cater to them.”
--Scott Frost, University of Nebraska
“When I think back to my youth and losing my dad at age nine, I turned to coaches and some of the men in the community to help me grow, so you learn things from different men in your life when you don’t have a dad. I think it’s really healthy to understand that ‘it takes a village,’ and part of that village is coaches. I think that coaches need to understand that their impact on these young people really matters, and to be thoughtful about how they approach their coaching. It doesn’t mean you have to be soft on them all the time and can’t challenge them and hold them accountable, but I think you need to give consideration to the words you say and your body language, because those things matter. I think the lazy thing to do, and we’re all guilty of it, is to let our emotions run and let that influence how you’re going to handle a practice or situation with a kid, but knowing that those are the formable years, and understanding the impact that you’re going to have on young people is important.”
--Ryan Day, Ohio State University