Journal of a Youth Coach: Teaching at practice begins, modified for warm weather

By Andy Ryland | Posted 8/12/2022

Week 1, Day 2: Practice was scheduled for full pads, but in the afternoon, I received an email that said due to the heat index, practice would be helmets-only.

I felt positive about this change. It showed the team protecting athletes, monitoring the weather and following the state’s heat guidelines for practice length and equipment.

When we showed up to practice there was a brief coach meeting to let everyone know the changes with equipment would impact the planned drills. Without equipment some of the more competitive ‘evaluation’ drills would not be possible. It was also reinforced to be aware of anyone who looked to be struggling or not feeling well and allow athletes to get water at any time.

The first practice period was blocking. We were told to review the previous practice’s teaching on stance and ‘drive for 5.’ Coaches and players moved to their groups and did a well-rehearsed 5-cue system for getting in their stance. They progressed to punch and drive vs. air and most groups moved to driving a player back.

I jumped in to do my first teaching. Here are some bullet points:

  • I felt like I was one of the few coaches to bring the group in, most taught to the lines
    • I also always get down on their level, kneeling or knees
  • I started asking the kids questions, and I’m pretty sure I was the only one to use this method 
    • I am big on player-centered knowledge and trying to pull it out of them
    • I asked them about hand placement and doubled down on why that is good and gives them more control
    • I asked them about elbows and displayed losing strength vs. keeping it ‘in the frame’

Next, we moved to top-down fits – a progression I really like. We got our hands in the correct position first, adjusted elbows, then bent knees and sank “till you feel strong, where you think is good.” It was a great chance to see what they feel is good or bad. Next, we moved one step back and tried to “move into that great position” we progressed to two steps away. I really like this progression.

Everyone was excited to get in the dirt and play some football, but the heat ruined that plan. After some deliberation we decided we should start with kneeling rolls.

As we went to our group, I again brought the group in and began with questions:

  1. What do we want to hit our opponent with?
  2. What do we never hit with?
  3. Where does that mean our shoulder should go?
  4. Where should our head be?

I then positioned two players for a visual.

We talked about “what do our arms do?” and “why is that so important?” We progressed to some kneeling fit and squeeze positions, keeping the runners on their feet. I learned that about half of the kids either couldn’t kneel or just found it uncomfortable to the point the position dropped instantly. They either sat on their rear heel or, if pushed forward and up, dropped their front foot under and put another knee down. Strength, core and balance challenges are real.

Long story short, we did kneeling-fits to one-step to tracking->swooping-> finding the fit . I didn’t want to worry about the roll until all the kids had some instruction on how to properly connect with an opponent.

After the next break, we were told to move to angle tackle fit drills. Tag or control with a little wrap – we referenced USA Football’s Levels of Contact and staying in control. 

Some key learnings from this drill:

  • Before the drill I would ask the players, “What shoulder are you are tackling with and where does you head go?” They would answer correctly and instantly work to the far side, wrong shoulder, head outside – why? Knowing and doing are very different things, especially for young athletes who are just learning. 
  • Players would also ALWAYS identify the correct strike point but most often strike high on the chest. Leg strength and playing in that low, loaded position is uncomfortable for most kids. Yelling “stay low” won’t fix it. My co-coach was great, and we just reminded them, reshaped them and helped reinforce the position knowing it will take some physical development.
  • I actually ran next to the runner with my fist on the strike target for quite a few reps to give them a big unmissable focus point. It didn’t always work. Bending is hard at this age, and some players stayed high.
  • My favorite moment was when a player does it incorrectly but instantly switches after contact is made. You wouldn’t do that on the field, but it shows me they know what it is supposed to be. Recognition is key to changing behavior and doing it right.

We finished the night off with some handoff work and pro-agility practice that was timed and tested for evaluation.

Spending time on proper connection and basic small space shoulder strikes is an absolute huge key in youth football. Do that with lots of tracking and that’s your foundation. Get those two right and, boom, magic. I can’t wait to have 6-8 weeks with a consistent group and put in some good work with the team.

We have Friday off before a Saturday session so we’ll rest up, rehydrate, and take time to study the next practice plan.