Journal of a Youth Coach: When average plays are great and sharing my experiences

By Andy Ryland | Posted 9/29/2022

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.  

We had an interesting play in today’s game. 

We were in the fourth quarter of a one-score game. It was second or third down with four yards to go. The opponent ran an outside play to the tight end side that cut inside our outside linebacker and gained six yards, securing a big first down late in the game and guaranteeing them four more plays. 

I jumped for joy and yelled praise. 

It was the biggest play of the season for this one little player, and as I ran out on the field to help line the player up for the next play, I patted them on the back, saw a massive smile and gave them a high five. 

This little dichotomy is the prototype of youth football in my eyes. 

One of the three players that I often mention that seems to struggle with contact and tackling for various reasons was the outside linebacker on that play. That kid lined up on the line on scrimmage against the tight end. They played the block, stayed outside and stayed alive. As the play cut up inside the tight end, they folded back in and made the tackle.  

It was their first tackle of the season. They had folded hard, aggressive, reactionary, and actually ‘hit it’. Having worked long and hard with this youngster, I was ecstatic. I was literally thrilled to the point I didn’t even consider the game, the drive, the first down or the clock. 

That kid had done it. They simply reacted and showed aggressiveness (their current major stumbling block) and made a solid, strong tackle! Forget that it was six yards downfield. This was a huge moment for someone that usually liked to keep their body as far away as possible and just try to use their arms. 

These are the moments, as a developmental coach, you should live for. That smile and prideful feeling of accomplishment leads to such a good moment. 

Strangely enough, we had a moment that involved our second player who was struggling to tackle as well. 

Full truth – I consider my son number three.  

After the game, the second struggling player’s mother stopped me to ask some questions and share. She said her kid is enjoying football. They say they really like it, but there was concern in the family if “this was for him.” 

Her child tells them they really enjoy football. In fact, they practice it every day at home. She said, “At home my kid smashes their tackle bag in the garage and backyard. Smashes it, like really hits it, super aggressive over and over!” I was just wowed he had his own bag and did his own practice. Formal practices and gamedays yield a much different result. There’s hesitancy. A last second pull back, not aggressively engaging.” 

Sounds like something I am very familiar with, and you might be too if you follow the blog. 

I asked if they like to roughhouse with the rest of the family or their friend group. She responded, “oh, yeah, yes.” This brings me to the idea of “others.” It’s something I have noticed with a decent portion of young athletes. 

There is psychological comfort in familiarity, specifically the confidence in replies to physical acts. I have heard some great youth doctors say that some youngsters may not be ready for contact sport because they lack emotional control. Sometimes a player’s fear of others lack of emotional control causes them to be very hesitant. 

What do I mean? When you roughhouse with friends and family, you know it is in good fun. You know you will not be punched or kicked – there are unwritten ground rules that govern escalation and reaction. Any injury beyond the normal bump will be acknowledged and 99% of the time, we will still be close and caring after the scrap. 

It’s not personal. It’s fun and friends. Others bring us doubt. 

What if they take offense or get mad? What if they don’t like being blocked, pushed, tackled, or hit? Will they curse at me, get angry, try to hurt me? What if they hate me for it? What if I hurt them and they attack me? Will I get in a fight? 

Some young athletes have not grasped the full concept that physical acts as part of a game have their own unique rules and responses. Some may have reservations about how others will react to these physical moments and fear it might start something negative. In these cases, physicality and aggressiveness are amplified with ‘knowns’ (friends and family) and suppressed against ‘others’ for fear of response. I have seen and heard variations of this many times. 

The other thing I mentioned to the mother was information overload. 

Sometimes players that excel in one-on-one drills or have the abilities struggle in small group or full team situations. Sometimes those that do well in small spaces struggle with big spaces. Most often, this is information overload. They know what to do, they have shown the capability to do it in scaled versions, but when in the big, full version there is so much going on – to see, read, and react to – that they are processing and not doing. 

They freeze, or at least slow down, to the point that they are not successful. They are trying to see and process everything because they want to make sure they do the correct thing. They can’t possibly handle all the information at once, and they get behind the play as they work through it. They slowdown in an effort to see and choose. As they are doing that, the play is passing them. 

Making a football tackle at the very least has 13 other players moving around, changing your line, changing the space, bumping, fighting and moving you. You are trying to navigate so much more. 

Note: As players get better, they start to learn what is important information and what is not. This allows them to see and react to key things while not actively paying attention to everything. Consider yourself as a beginner driver versus now. Your active attention is probably much different. 

At the end of the day, I told this concerned mother that enjoyment is the best gage of current status. If your child likes playing football and being with the team and their new friends, support them. 

I told her I judge myself on if a player wants to continue their football journey and comes back next year. Everyone won’t learn everything in one year. The lightbulb moment is on its own timetable with cognitively developing youngsters. Understanding and unlocking all these little attributes takes time. 

I also tried to reassure her that what she sees in her child is not uncommon. No, the best, most aggressive players in the league don’t demonstrate this, but plenty of youngsters do. You have to consider the totality of youth, not just the best player on the team. For most athletes, in a positive environment, with encouragement if they stick with it, they start to see the patterns and the information become easy to navigate. 

I certainly hope that in some small way I helped her. 

Maybe it’s because a small moment, by player one, helped recharge me so much that day, that I know how powerful little encouraging things can be. I hope I helped her and her son with a little of that same encouragement, even if they aren’t perfect.