USA Football's Andy Ryland chronicles his journey of a youth football coach

By Kevin Meyer | Posted 10/24/2022

When USA Football Senior Manager of Education and Engagement Andy Ryland volunteered to be an assistant coach of his eight-year-old son’s Rookie Tackle youth football league, the former Penn State linebacker and U.S. Men’s Rugby National Team member created a positive, encouraging and safe environment designed to promote age-appropriate learning and development.  

Ryland started a blog series titled Journal of a Youth Coach, and used to share his experience with youth coaches across the country. Ryland devoted his time and past experience to help the next generation of athletes learn how to play the right way, while also having fun.

This blog provides brief glimpses of Ryland’s journal entries with outbound links to each edition.

Being a helping hand for my son’s first team  

Ryland introduces his coaching journal series and explains how he became involved as an assistant coach for his son’s third-grade Rookie Tackle football team. This is his son’s first year playing tackle football.

This journal series exists to help guide and prepare USA Football certified coaches for their seasons. It shows examples of what coaches might face on a week-to-week basis.  Some entries offer advice about coaching philosophy while others focus on technical development and drills.

Teaching the basics

Ryland’s second blog highlights him stepping into action, as he led groups at practice. He was responsible for teaching the kids blocking and tackling drills. Ryland covers his approach to these drills and how he emphasizes player-centered knowledge.

Interacting with young players and asking them questions instead of simply lecturing them allows the athletes to participate and interact with their coaches. It’s a great way to keep them engaged while building their knowledge base.

What matters in youth football

Ryland applies his experiences with high-level and elite programs to youth football warm-ups, where he notices some coaches are emphasizing different elements of the workout than higher level organizations would. New youth coaches should understand what motivates and encourages young athletes and not expect them to perform to the same level as high school or college players.

This journal entry also recaps one of the league’s first days with the kids in pads. Ryland discusses his coaching philosophy of stress inoculation, which allows young athletes to gradually adjust to new drills and experiences.

The importance of on-field organization

Ryland discusses the importance of logistics when organizing and moving large numbers of kids from drill to drill. The league ran a combine-style testing day to get a better feel for the athletes, but many kids got lost in between drills. It was difficult for both coaches and players to navigate.

As a youth sports organization, the experience you provide for the kids and parents contributes to how they perceive your credibility. Recruit good coaches, get them USA Football trained and certified and build detailed practice plans. Go the extra steps in large camp type settings like jamborees to make sure your event operations are buttoned up to avoid chaos and negative experiences.

A coaching and parenting moment

In his fifth blog, Ryland breaks down his first practice as an assistant coach and explains how he teaches young athletes tackling. Tackling is one of the foundational pieces of football, but young athletes need to learn it from the ground up. It’s not as easy as it looks on TV, and many youth players struggle with their fits and grip strength.

Ryland also recaps one of his first father-son moments of the season after his son had a difficult practice.

SSGs are important for first year players

Literature tells us small sided games (SSGs) are one of the strongest and most important teaching/learning tools coaches have. They allow athletes to connect technique to real situations and environments where they will use their techniques. This helps transition from technique to skill because it requires processing, reading the game, timing and a choice of technique to accomplish the goal.

Ryland discusses how to incorporate SSGs into practices and why they are so beneficial for first-year players.

Remember to let the kids play

Highlighted by an eventful picture day, the team went into its first scrimmage. As some kids come in with no experience and others enter with knowledge of the game, it’s important not to deprive the kids of the game when they are just starting to understand it.  Sometimes you just have to let the kids play.

Plays, opportunities, experiences and learning are more important than memorizing plays and assignments at young ages. Plus, the ability to memorize and know assignments comes naturally with cognitive maturity.

The game is the best teacher

After struggling with tackling in a previous scrimmage, Ryland’s team showed significant improvement. Consistency is still an issue for many youth players who are learning many new techniques and fundamentals for the first time. Coaches should be patient and willing to work through these day-to-day inconsistencies as kids develop.

Coaches live for the lightbulb moment with players, regardless of age or level.

Bonding while teaching football

Ryland’s son continued struggling in his first season of tackle football. Ryland decided to help his son feel more comfortable by  about the sport. creating fun custom ways for his son to learn more about sport.  

Ryland wrote a short book at his son’s reading level that included drawing activities, covered the big themes of football, and supported his son’s football journey. Ryland also used chess pieces to create formations and teach his son about positions and movement.

 Practice makes perfect

Ryland’s son came home and asked to practice football. The two spent time in their garage, which has a padded floor, practicing blocking, tackling and grappling. These were all things Ryland’s son was struggling to develop during his first year of tackle football, but his decision to put in extra practice time was encouraging.

It’s important to not push young athletes into extra practice or add too much pressure because they might eventually fall out of love with their sport. However, the athlete asking for extra practice time is a good opportunity for parents or coaches to support their young athletes. Remember to be patient during the development process.

Selling ‘better’ to youth football athletes  

“Better” is a relative term. Ryland noticed every player on the team got noticeably better during the season. However, kids often measure their own performances against their peers and sometimes go home disappointed. It’s up to coaches to sell young athletes on the importance of getting better and competing against their past performances instead of comparing themselves to others.

Age-appropriate coaching and allowing mistakes

In his eleventh blog, Ryland discusses the importance of age-appropriate coaching. Youth coaches shouldn’t hold their players to the same standard as high schoolers, the same way teachers wouldn’t expect elementary school students to write mistake-free essays.

Mistakes are natural for kids at the youth football level. Between mental and cognitive maturity, there’s only so much the young athletes can take in, process, and learn in such a short time period. A lot of coaches make the mistake of trying to “edit the paper to perfect.” When you see kids at this age, you must see greatness on a different scale.

Enjoying competition and close games

Ryland’s team faced a true challenge in the third game of the season as they played a close game against one of their league’s top teams.  The game was tied at halftime. Ryland noticed his players rising to the challenge and enjoying the tight matchup.

It’s important to teach young athletes about challenges and introduce them to how fun close games can be. However, that doesn’t make it okay for adults to become too intense and start yelling. That will accomplish the exact opposite of what youth coaches should aim for. It’s alright to increase the intensity in close games, but adults should always stay in control of their emotions and remain focused on what’s best for their athletes.

Focus on opportunities to grow above winning

Winning and losing are equal parts of organized sports, especially at the youth level. For the first time in the season, Ryland and his head coach needed to address their team following a loss. Losing is part of football and part of the process of development. It’s important to remind young athletes they can still have great seasons even after losing efforts. 

Sometimes you will simply run into teams that are better than yours at the youth level. Kids mature at different rates, so matchups can be lopsided when one team has more biologically developed athletes.

Winning is fun for players at the youth level, but coaches should focus on providing the best opportunities for growth, not the best opportunity to win games as a coach.

Sharing the joy of player development

Ryland witnesses two of his team’s players who struggle with tracking and tackling make nice tackles during a game. He celebrates with the players and shares how happy he is to see the young players finding more success as tacklers.

Ryland also recounts his discussion with a mother who was concerned about his son struggling with tackling despite enjoying roughhousing at home.

Many youth players are hesitant in games and during practices because they’re tackling strangers. They’re still not used to experiencing that part of the sport with people who aren’t their close friends or family. As they get older, they come to accept it as part of the game.

Young football players also struggle with information overload as they struggle to process and navigate everything unfolding in front of them. This also becomes easier with age and mental development.

Learn the rules before you break the rules

Learn the rules before you break the rules” is one of Ryland’s favorite coaching mottos. He believes the best players are playmakers who sometimes take chances by breaking from traditional assignments and techniques to chase a big play.

In-game scenarios often require players to break the “rules” to win the play. Football assignments and techniques are taught like they’re perfect, but the game is full of imperfections that require players to break the rules. Technique has bandwidth, and sometimes the “perfect” drills run in practices don’t match the situations players find themselves in on game day.

It’s difficult to teach young players to recognize when they should stick with traditional form and when they should “break the rules.” Teaching the value of structure without crushing all creativity and playmaking is a balance.

The long-term goal is to teach young athletes to do the little things well, play fundamental football and read the game so they can eventually recognize opportunities to create big plays.

Breaking down a practice and tackle session

Ryland breaks down a 20-minute tackle and blocking practice session that includes a warm up, review period and multiple small-sided games. It’s a quick contact session for teams looking to maximize daylight as the sun begins setting earlier.

This practice style emphasizes keeping young football players active and engaged. Drills move quickly to cover multiple scenarios and provide significant exposure to potential real-game situations. Ideally, kids become more comfortable with the contact aspects of blocking and tackling while building an understanding of angles and technique.  

Building the environment

Ryland notes that his son, who struggled with contact early in the season, is beginning to enjoy contact and football as a whole. His son has started playing backyard football games with his friends, and they’re all beginning to show more interest in the sport.

Youth players are still physically and mentally developing, so coaches should focus on teaching them fundamentals and making it an enjoyable experience. Keeping young athletes safe and involved with sport is important.

Coaches and parents will learn more about their athletes once they hit puberty, but that’s still years away for many youth players. In the meantime, adults should be patient and build positive environments that promote development.

Final coaching takeaways

In Ryland’s final journal, he recaps some of the most important lessons he learned during his first season coaching youth football. He offers advice on the best coach practices, how to keep young athletes engaged and how to relate to and understand the experiences of youth players.  

This entry is an important tool for first-time or beginning youth football coaches because it tells them what to expect and how to connect with their athletes.