Journal of a Youth Coach: Allow mistakes and focus on age-appropriate coaching

By Andy Ryland | Posted 9/20/2022

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. 

I would like to tell you a very true story. 

During the Covid shutdowns, like a lot of people, I suddenly found myself as a part-time elementary school teacher. In my experience, math was easy. I assumed the questions and work assigned were “on his level” for my son. We were learning, so mistakes would be made but they should be easily correctable. It ended up being very doable. 

English, on the other hand, was an all-together different situation.   

What I learned very quickly was that I did not know what good or poor age-appropriate writing was! I figured sentence structure would be short, vocabulary would be limited and things would be funny. I thought, “I’ve seen enough kids work from family, friends and social media” that I knew there would be lots of misspelling and punctuation errors. But then how many? How often? Spelling errors on what types of words? 

Now here is where it got tricky: How do you correct those errors and how much do you correct? 

It’s easy to think, “I don’t want them to build bad habits,” “they should learn the right way,” and other such common sentiments. But, as I chewed that over in my head, thinking back to kids work, I felt like I have seen papers graded A+ that have every word larger than three letters spelled incorrectly.   

My mother has some of my old schoolwork in a memory box, and even in third and fourth grade, there are plenty of mistakes (we laugh about it when we break it out over a holiday) yet the work received a good grade.  

I knew it wouldn’t be high school or adult standard when working with my son on his schoolwork, but what was the standard? 

The following year, we again started remote learning and his teacher, as part of orientation, sent examples of age-level writing. What it clearly showed was that mistakes are normal. They are part of the learning process. The examples given as “good” had tons of errors, but they were age-appropriate errors. As the semester progressed, the teacher would tell the kids to “write it your way,” and it was okay to have basic spelling and phonics errors.    

As coaches, we say things like “perfect practice,” “doing things the right way,” “building good/bad habits.” However, this expert in her field, my son’s teacher, was saying “no- that’s good, let it be, they are learning.” It’s a funny moment to think that A+ work can have 17 spelling errors and periods the size of pencil erasers. 

Note: I also love analogies. 

So back to football. Why are we so concerned with building bad habits if the learning process for all things is messy and sometimes slow?  

When pushing athletes to get it right, what is the age-appropriate standard? How do we, as coaches balance “what we know,” “what is good” and “what is perfect” with teaching kids? 

What does “awesome for a first-year tackle football player” look like? 

The moral of the story is, just like kids in English class, there are going to be some mistakes that are just…*gasp*… NATURAL!   

An A+ for many children will not be perfect when using an elite sport model. This is not an excuse. This is not some anti-coaching, anti-technique, lazy comment, but chasing perfect is a fool’s errand.   

Between mental and cognitive maturity, how much can some of these youngsters honestly take in, process, and learn in such a short time period? All at once they are learning new teammates, the playbook, and for many just the basic rules. Physically, be it coordination or strength, some lack certain building blocks to master particular KPIs no matter how good your coaching cues are. 

What I witness on the practice field and where I think a lot of coaches make mistakes is trying to “edit the paper to perfect.” They so desperately want the youth player to do it like their favorite hall of famer. One, this is often an unrealistic expectation. Two, you get to the land of “terrible return on investment.” 

Return on investment, or ROI, is something I think about a lot on drills. So many coaches will keep doing a drill or keep practicing a thing over and over in the name of perfect, but those last little bits of improvement are so minimal and cost so much in training time that you have to ask, are they even worth it?   

It’s like the English paper. You can spend ten minutes reviewing and editing. Your child will see some things, fix some mistakes, and get better. However, to perfect the paper would take an hour, and by the end you are just driving the process, they are frustrated and the student becomes miserable and shuts out learning. 

The above process is not a good situation to begin to fall in love with football.  

So have the athlete do their best, make some corrections, work at it, GET BETTER and move on to other skills. Focus on progressing over years to the final stage, while demanding short term “mastery” at an age-appropriate level. 

It struck me after today’s game that my age-appropriate lens was in full effect.   

I’m not sure when it turned on, but two plays in particular stood out. I saw things that I know would be disappointing to me if seen in a high-level player I was working with. In the third grade Rookie Tackle game, I was freaking fired up about how close we were to making the play! Especially taking the individual into account who almost made the play.   

See I know, I mean really know, players this age struggle with space. They get overwhelmed by lots of movement and their decision-making frazzles, so they act in slow movement. I know kids at that age struggle to bend and hold low positions because of their physical development. 

Again, similar to writing, we work on it every day. We remind them, but I also know you can’t force it into them. They need mother nature to cooperate, and they need loads more reps and experience to explore, move, find and master.   

For any coaches that are struggling with how imperfect the youth game or youth skills are, pick up your child’s reading book or English papers. Look at the complexity, the level, and the normal errors.  

Remember, this is how kids that age operate and just because we present it in sports, there is no magic button that will make them something different. There will be mistakes, there will be errors and there will be things they aren’t ready for, so they don’t make the play.   

When you see kids at this age, you must see greatness on a different scale, and when you see A+ papers that are far from perfect, you start to understand youth sports.