Journal of a Youth Coach: Dinosaurs, book writing and a chessboard – this is youth football

By Andy Ryland | Posted 9/6/2022

USA Football Senior Manager of Education and Engagement Andy Ryland recently volunteered to be an assistant coach for his 8-year-old son's Rookie Tackle youth football team. A former Penn State linebacker and member of the U.S. Men’s Rugby National Team, Ryland is an expert on tackling and preparation for contact with athletes, consistent with USA Football's Football Development Model. He also assists coaches of all sports in areas of drill design and skill development. This series of journal entries chronicles his family's 2022 youth football experience.

My son had a bad practice again. Using my coaching eye and making assumptions, it seems we are a bit overwhelmed by the game at the moment.

We had a 10-15-minute scrimmage against another team tonight, and we struggled. We looked confused or frazzled to the point that it slowed us down.

Now, some background. My son is every stereotype of a ‘He is going to be an engineer’-kind-of-kid. He loves tinkering, building things, and Legos. He was the kid that at four or five years old wanted to take apart old electronics. He can name 100 dinosaurs and tell you what they liked to eat and when they lived. He is a deep thinker and craves understanding.

Knowing is comfort to him, and we (currently) do not have that in football.

He actually does best when he plays offensive line or tight end because, in our league, we have a standard defense and he knows who to block. They are always in the same place and the same person. Playing center, where he must chase the linebacker proves more difficult. Defensive line is pretty good because he always attacks the guard. At defensive back we see the same brain short-circuit.

After a chat with my son about football in general including what he is seeing and thinking, some basic questions about offense and defense, and questions on positions and jobs, a conclusion was reached. 

We need to learn more about football to feel comfortable.  

Generally speaking, he is the cautious one of my two children. He needs context and a full understanding of things. My daughter is the leap first, ask questions later one.

The challenge was how to teach football while making it fun. Maybe the more important point was making it self-driven, not forced. I do NOT want to be THAT dad. This problem is probably much easier tackled with one’s own child, because you know them. That said, there’s value in working through this line of thinking with a team. 

Everyone says players each need different things — different modes of understanding or explaining and a tailored delivery. Having a deep relationship with my son and knowing him and his hobbies gave me some ideas.

First, I wrote a book. My son loves to read. We read for 10-15 minutes every night before bed. He taught himself all the dinosaur information via this life pattern. I have had lots of proof that he is very good at learning via books. 

So, how to write an interesting book for kid?

  • Short sentences
  • Big ideas
  • Fun, powerful words that ‘paint pictures’
  • Bigger font, double spaced
  • Lots of bolds and underlines
  • Places for activities like drawing pictures of what we just learned
  • Make it special — the title is, “Your football Book, by Dad”
  • The most important thing is they feel loved, safe, and secure
    • Last line of the book is “I love you, forever and Always, Dad”

After school I showed him the book. It caught a passing glance. He wanted a snack and to go ride bikes with the neighborhood gang.

But something happened in the evening. It was bedtime. The moment of truth. Today had been library day and he had checked out two books about dinosaurs, but he said he was going to read “his football book” from me.

I think the special factor got him. We laid in bed next to each other. I had my book (big surprise, another military history book) and he had his football book.

He got to the last page. I hear, “Aww, thanks Dad, I love you too,” and he gave me a big hug. Success!

He told his mother he will do the drawings tomorrow. Most importantly when I asked him, “Do you think this will help?” he enthusiastically said yes. He better understood the game, especially what each position does when they rotate from offense to defense, like when to block and when to try to get away (offense vs. defense).

Note: Players do make this mistake every now and then. Block defeat is still new, so sometimes it looks like a player forgot they are on defense and drive block the blocker, forgetting about the runner…oh first-year kids. Hilarious!

Before dinner we also did another planned learning activity. We played football chess! My son loves chess. I set out a board, grabbed some pieces, and we put them in formation one by one. 

I asked him, “Who is the one that is always right over the ball?” then we put out a piece. My son replied, “That’s the center, they are easy to remember because they’re always the center of the offense.”

We went through the entire offense and defense this way. The pieces then ran plays and I asked him questions. “Who blocks who? What’s his job? Who goes after the ball?”

This may not work for everyone, but I had a hunch it would work for my son. By the end, he was having his pieces run our plays. Maybe that’s just how his mind works but it sparked something for him. It was needed and important to see the positions, move them, learn their roles. 

This may not be a magic solution, but his confidence seems to be growing. I’m excited to see if this context and understanding unlocks the brain for him a bit because I know this is how he operates. He doesn’t like just doing a thing because he finds safety in knowledge.

This will be fun to follow. Until Friday, everyone.