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.
We had our first game last weekend.
It was freaking wild. Crazy adjustments and distractions, first game nightmares.
From a fourth grade perspective, the kids probably didn’t see it as chaos, but it was something that could easily lose a group of young athletes. Most coaches worry about the first game. So many unknowns and logistics are usually untested. We had some unique ones.
Just to get it out of the way, we won the game. It was a sloppy, slogged out 16-0 victory. It is often said that the defense is ahead of the offense early in preseason camp. With only five practices before the game, the defenses for both teams were ahead. We didn’t really find any flow offensively until later in the second half when we scored two nice touchdowns and were able to run out the clock on the last drive.
We converted both two-point tries, which is a good sign and could certainly come in handy in later, tighter games. While the defenses were ahead for both teams, I think we tackled exceptionally well.
On to the chaos. We were scheduled to play at 4:00 p.m., the second to last game slot of the day. I woke up to rain and somewhere around 8:00 a.m. I got an email that all games would be pushed back 30 minutes because they needed to buy some time and let the storm pass for the first game of the day.
The team chat lit up and emails went around to all parents, but the idea is still a worry. Did everyone get the communication? Would there be any issues? Did the time change cause double booking for parents or siblings' events?
My daughter had soccer, then the quick trip home, snack, change clothes and head to the game. We arrived at the field for warm-ups and at the planned time we were missing two players. It happens in kids’ sports; they are dependent on their parents for travel and there was plenty of time before kickoff. Word was they were on the way, so we started our dynamic, and they joined us quickly.
Somewhere in the warm-up process, I heard a commissioner come speak to our head coach and say something to the order of, “you aren’t going to like this but you’re playing 8’s today.” True story, I didn’t think anything of it. They are friends from other sports and just figured it was some friendly chat. A bit later, I noticed I didn’t see the other team warming-up on their side of the field. Maybe they were off behind the bleachers?
As the game approached, the opposing head coach came over with the two officials. I actually really like the other head coach; we have had a few good chats on rugby (he is involved in the local youth program), and we were paired up for a few stations during camp weeks. With all the worry about our team and our kids, I had never thought about the opponents! It turned out they were down three players and would not be able to field the full nine, so we were going to play 8s.
I am not the kind that gets worked up. I just want the kids to have fun, learn some football and get a chance to run around. It’s year two, fourth grade Rookie Tackle. That said, how would it work and how would our team react to suddenly running plays when everything was different from practice? Alignments were off, spacing was different and we were missing a whole gap for plays on offense! That posed a big mental challenge.
The game started, and both teams had one drive. As we were transitioning back to defense, the officials blew the whistle. Lightening. Thirty-minute delay and everyone off the field. We got the kids into the shelter, parents and siblings were everywhere. Some in the shelter, some in cars, some trying to figure out what was going on. The league administration and groups of coaches were all glued to phones, checking weather apps and tracking lightning. Every strike restarted the thirty-minute clock. Do kids handle changes in schedules and transitions well? Gulp!
After about 50 minutes, we were allowed to resume. We hustled out on the field for a quick ten-minute warm-up and back to the game, third drive, still first quarter. The lightning was gone, but it was still raining.
It was a perfect beautiful rain. Warm, nice and kind of cooling as it was super humid before. As a player, it was the kind of day I absolutely lived for! So many memories of playing with friends as a youngster, getting wet, maybe a little muddy and laughing in joy. As a coach, all that went through my head was ball security and the quarterback-center exchange. Remember, all these players are only three weeks into that skill as they didn’t do it last year. Playing in the rain was another big challenge.
After the game, I told the boys I was super proud. “Things are not always pretty. Sometimes you just got to slug out a victory. Sometimes games get pushed back, there are weather delays, you may have to have brand new alignments because you are playing with the wrong number of players! Your hands may be soaked, and the ball might be slippery.”
I thought they showed great adaptiveness, focus and resilience. Who knows? Maybe they were just too young to know it was all supposed to be a distraction. While we didn’t play our best, we played well for a first game, and the boys were certainly happy to go home with a W.