USA Football Senior Manager of Education and Engagement Andy Ryland recently volunteered to be an assistant coach for his local 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 2023 youth football experience.
Physical development: a key concept of long-term athletic development and kids growing. Strength: a key component of physical development and a much-needed trait for football.
Kids can do exercises, workout or even “train.” They can play a lot of sports, be physically active in the neighborhoods and not play many video games. They can have a good PE program and access to lots of recess. But most kids just aren’t that strong, at least by football standards and probably sports standards.
It’s not their fault. It’s kind of expected, and it’s ok. That is the whole, “kid growing and maturing” thing. As a coach, you can't control mother nature, but it will impact how and what you are able to coach.
I believe this so much; I even mentioned it in my parents’ introduction speech. I told them not to be disheartened if certain skills are difficult for their child as they are still growing and developing, and some things may be out of reach until they mature a bit more.
I am sure there is someone reading this thinking “kids today are just soft,” “kids today don’t know how to work hard,” “it is all the iPhone’s fault.” I am sure somebody reading this was throwing bales of hay 30 feet into a barn when they were that age and was strong as an ox, but I walked up hill to school both ways too so let’s have a chat.
A child’s physical development can unlock the ability to do certain football skills – or at least do them better. We say in the Football Development Model (FDM), “Physical qualities are the underpinnings of technical skills.” Some movements are just harder to do if you lack body control and coordination. Some positions are just hard to hold if you are weak, or weak in particular places. With that in mind, let’s address young football players and their weaknesses. Specifically, the legs, core and hand/finger.
Kids often have weak legs by sport standards. Yes, they can sit, stand, run around and maybe even do a decent looking bodyweight squat, but sport asks them to be in some high ‘strain’ positions that take leg strength to hold. Consider the age old “stay low” coach. They yell and yell and yell for kids to stay low. It never works.
When you consider the act of getting low, we are talking about a good level of knee bend. That knee bend places tension and stress on the legs, and most athletes really struggle with that. They don’t play high because the coach hasn’t told them or they don’t know they are supposed to, it’s usually because they can’t hold that low position.
Once in contact, athletes are now working against a big resistance (the opponent) and with a lack of strength, staying in those bent, low, loaded, straining positions is extremely hard. They rise and get high because they want their legs much straighter where the weight feels lighter and easier.
Core strength is crucial to all contact-collision sports. Your core stabilizes your spine and that drives good posture and supports coaching cues like “flat back” and “stay square.” Many coaches would recognize from seeing either the humpback or corkscrewed stances young athletes have, that holding flat and square against gravity can be hard for them.
This is even more so in contact, that big resistance from an opponent again. When locked in a battle with lots of pressure and strain, notice how many turn or corkscrew (usually into their dominant side shoulder). The reason? They can’t stay square versus the pressure they are facing due to sport specific (yet age appropriate) strength deficits in their core.
Something I noticed this year is the lack of hand strength. Strength issues holding on and gripping a runner in the tackle are something everyone sees. But I noticed it most in defensive line stances. Because the defensive line stance is further forward with more weight on the hand, there is increased pressure compared to the offensive line’s stance. Most of the young athletes simply don’t have the finger strength to hold themselves there.
A lot sit back into very leg dominated stances because their hand/fingers can’t take the weight. You will also see players move to the flat palm or fist stance as practice goes on because their fingers give out.
Why bring up all three of these things?
When I say they are expected, do we just let them go?
When I say some of it is age-appropriate, do we just ignore it?
No. I certainly try to train it and reinforce it in the kids. We help them through appropriately dosed exercise to build up those capacities over time, but I also know it will not happen overnight. For some, it may not happen this year. With young kids, you may be investing into the future when mother nature steps in, blesses them with a little maturity, a little more muscle, and that previous work can come to the forefront. For now, some things will be technically difficult because physical qualities are still developing.