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.
After roughly 20 editions of this journal and plenty of hours spent with my son’s Rookie Tackle team, here are a few takeaways for coaches of youth teams.
Kids’ attention spans are short. Change drills often or even simply tweak the drill by moving the cones around or starting in new places. It can be the same but different. Having to move, listen to new explanations and do new things can help kids refocus. Again, the same = boredom = spacing off.
Sticking with a drill too long is never worth it. Never. Take the easy gains, get better, don’t worry about perfection. Get better, move on and come back to it the next day. Nothing kills the energy like dragging out a drill looking for that last 3-5% of improvement. Take the big, easy, early jumps then change drills or skills. This works great because kids get bored, and at this age, they need to work on everything. You’re probably not pinpointing the one thing that is keeping them from a scholarship, and one tiny detail of one skill isn’t the holy grail. Just get better at football.
Big groups and lines are a bad idea. For my kids, we could get distracted, start pushing, play fight or unplug anytime we had more than two in a line. When I was working with a big group, I’d much rather have four groups of two instead of two groups of four. Use a rotation and smaller group. As a coach, I’d rather jump back and forth to smaller groups than deal with what happens in long lines.
Recognize improvement even if they lose the play. Encourage them even when they fail. Getting closer to making a play or doing more parts of the big thing right are big steps for a lot of first year players. The encouragement can help them handle struggles and see it as “closer/better” not failure. That is improvement.
Let them play pre-practice. Keep an eye out for anything dangerous, but I heard coaches say things like “stop messing around. If you’re here early do drills”, “no horse play, this is football” only to take a group of ten kids all running, being active and playing and force them into one giant line to watch one kid get to catch. Play is a highly valuable developmental stimulus. It’s needed. It’s where kids explore and try new things. It’s where a lot of us learned how to move and read other players’ movements. Kids also get less play than previous generations, so they need this foundation. Let them run, juke, throw, catch and make up their own rules. There is no magic in cones and lines and “football.”
Shake hands, high five, fist bump and tell the kids what they did well post practice. There’s nothing better than heading to the car as a child after your coach told you he was so proud of the thing you did. Even if it was the only good thing you did that day. They have a positive to hold onto and a way to see themselves getting better, even if it was a tough day for them personally.
More small-sided games and less drills. Learn to play through situations not just do a random singular thing. Create little pieces of the game and let them play. Don’t sterilize everything with perfect drills and perfect demonstrations. Learn to play football. Just scale it to their abilities, size and manage contact.
“Better” may still not be good enough in comparison to their friends or peers. Don’t let it hurt a kid’s motivation or self-image.
I wanted kids to learn to love and enjoy football. I made the goal that I would judge myself not on wins but if each kid signed up to play again next year because they had a great experience. It’s a first year, everyone plays, everybody has multiple position league. Keep that in perspective.
Treat kids like kids. Kids are not mini adults. Kids are not mini NFL players. Their training doesn’t need to be what is seen on TV. It needs to meet their developmental needs. Third graders don’t do algebra, they’re just learning multiplication. The same is true for the complexity of skills. My kids learned to tackle, just with simpler instruction than college players. Same basic principles but not as complex. Again, multiplication not algebra, but it’s still math.
Certain techniques and skills with be difficult and impossible based on physical development. All techniques and skills have physical underpinnings. If you are missing the physical, it’s hard to do the technique. Example: Kids struggle to bend in the lower body and to get into stereotypical “low pad level” positions. It’s something you will have to accept. The fix isn’t more yelling “get low!” The major issue is their strength in their lower body is lacking, and they’re unable to lower themselves and hold these high-tension positions. Core strength and control, which are vital to posture and staying square, are also often lacking. Coordination and spatial awareness to find and feel what good is in order to recapture it is still developing. Don’t allow dangerous positions, but don’t pull your hair out when they can’t do what highschoolers can.
Some football ideas will be very difficult or impossible to learn based on cognitive maturity. Some super complex ideas their minds are just not ready for. Simple decision making, age-appropriate levels of comprehension and memorization are important.
Clamp is the number one reason for missed tackles. It’s not for lack of coaches talking about it, it might not even be for lack of understanding or trying. Again, maturity, strength and timing come into play. Many don’t understand how hard it actually is. Grappling is so critical for learning this and getting a good understanding for what strong clamping feels like and how much you have to actually squeeze and fight to control another human being. I got fond of saying, “remember, they don’t just fall down, we have to bring them down” to the kids.
Strong running is the most impactful offensive action at this level. Strong running is working though contact with speed, which translates to power. So many kids brace for contact. They slow down trying to get organized and ready for what’s coming. They could just power though the edge of a shoulder, run through an arm, maybe just outrun them, but the mind game gets in the way. They see the hit coming so they slow down to brace and now have no power. What happens is they either get stopped by the tackler they could have beaten or the pursuit catches up. Those that run hard and don’t slow down break a ton of tackles.
Parent Me vs. Coach Me. My league had a three-football activity per week limit. When we had midweek games, we lost a practice day. As a coach, I wanted the extra practice. There were lots of skills we could have worked on. As a parent, midweek games were fantastic. With multiple kids, each in multiple sports and activities, plus extended family, a job, housework, kids’ friend’s play dates and birthday parties, the weekends are just packed. Parent Andy loved getting the game in on a Wednesday night and lightening up the weekend.
Kids keep score. Kids want to win. Kids don’t have any idea what winning means in the larger social-personal landscape. Winning or losing really doesn’t change their perceived social standing or self-worth. Kids care about a loss until snack is served and they start talking about how excited they are for a sleep-over with friends or dinner with grandma.
You are human. You are not perfect. You can know everything there is to know about coaching kids and being a positive coach. You will probably lose your cool once this season. You will yell, you will threaten with push-ups or runs or something dumb because the irritation got to you, and you lost your temper. It happens. It’s probably happened to you as a spouse or a father, and it will as a coach. Acknowledge it, fix it, apologize if you need to, reload and try again. Try to do better.
Ask more questions. You don’t always have to tell. Learn to pull information and answers out of the kids. That doesn’t mean lecture and ask questions to check for understanding. Generate the knowledge through their own words by asking them things?
If I put my shoulder here what happens to the runner?
If my shoulder gets all the way to here, what happens?
Which one is better?
Which one do you think I want you to use?
The energy level and focus of your youngsters will change widely day to day, practice to practice and even game to game. If you are a parent, you see this every day. Your kids just seem to wake up in different moods some days. You can think you did everything right; great day, quality food, stayed on schedule, good night sleep and they still wake up grumpy and sour and snippy. My kids can be sweethearts or rascals almost independent of other factors. Your child’s mood getting up can be vastly different from the bus stop and again after school. Point being, no lecture on the importance of practice is going to change kids still struggling with emotional control, focus and mood modulation. Kids are way more prone to peaks and valleys. Just know, they will all have slow days and scatterbrained unfocused moments, and some days they will be locked in. Who cares? Coach your best anyway.
What you think is cool is probably not what kids think is cool. What you think is fun is often very different from what your players think is fun. You have adult glasses on. If you want to make things cool and fun, ask. Yes, it’s that simple. What do they think is cool? What music, TV shows, games and players do they like? What do they do at recess with their friends, or what’s their favorite drill? Too many adults try to solve kids’ problems with adult-generated solutions when you have the actual resource standing in front of you. Just ask.