Journal of a Youth Coach 2023: Adapting to youth football practice schedules

By Andy Ryland | Posted 9/11/2023

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. 

This blog series hasn’t been super patterned. It has felt kind of hit or miss on days. Why do you ask? Well, youth football reasons. 

To set the stage, our league has a “three football activities per week” rule. Two practices and a game are the norm. If you have a bye week, you can hold a third practice. There aren’t really a lot of bye weeks. What happens more often is the choice of a bye weekend. Our league facility has three game fields. Because of all the different age groups and teams, cramming all those games into one Saturday just won’t work. Every team has a few mid-week games so not all games don’t have to be on Saturday. If you have a mid-week game, you can choose to have practice on Saturday at one of the non-game field facilities. 

We ended up having a bye weekend week two, so there wasn’t a Saturday game. Our head coach planned a team building event/pool party for the boys instead of that third practice. I thought that was a great idea. Part of sport is meeting new people, new friends from other elementary schools, and building community. My town and this league ultimately feed up into two high schools, so most of these players will be teammates again at some point.  

It just turned out that our Monday practice after the game was canceled due to rain. We held our Thursday practice as normal. The pool party was on Saturday, and the kids had a blast. Pizza, a pool, volleyball, king of the mountain and some squirt guns…what more do nine- and ten-year-olds need?   

It stunk we lost a practice day due to rain, but we were back to game week and had Monday to get ready for our mid-week game, or so I thought. We got hit with a heat wave in Indiana, and practice was cancelled for Monday. 

I loved the idea of the party, but missing two practices due to weather suddenly makes you feel a lot less confident going into the next game. In theory, we would have had three practices and a team building event before our next game. Now, we had one practice over ten days.  

But as I said, these are youth football reasons. A lot of high schools would go into the gym and do walk throughs, run some plays and some small space drills on a rainy or hot day. We don’t really have that option. By the time we as coaches get the official word on practice being off, it’s normally too late to drastically change plans. The league holds off on the final announcement and hopes the weather will clear.  

I love football as much as anyone, and I love coaching, so I love practice! But again, it’s youth football. By the time we get the word, can we find a facility? That also comes with fees for rentals. Plus, it puts a huge strain on parents to change plans, drive all over town and it often ends up with not a full team. 

Am I soft? Am I not committed enough? Should I push to squeeze every bit of practice from the kids and help teach parents that they have to be committed to the sacrifices of football? Truth be told there are internal struggles I have. As someone who knows long term development and maturity, I know the goals are having fun, enjoyment, getting better and increasing confidence.  Making it too competitive, too all or nothing, too “you must sacrifice to be great or win” sounds great, but these are only second year kids in recreational football.  

Is learning to find a way, do more, and commit to being the best you can be an important life lesson for youth players? Absolutely! The question is, how do you introduce and teach it at this age? Too many times adults try to teach important life lessons in adult context to children. That usually overwhelms them or burns them out. Maybe just introduce and teach concepts in an age-appropriate manner. 

Case in point, athletes at this age are probably on the edge of the discover-to-achieve states of the Football Development Model (FDM). They are in the Learn to Train state of other classic LTAD models. That means they are just learning some of these ideas, qualities and traits. Many are exploring if football is for them. Is the best way to teach how to train to fully immerse them, or simply to plant the seeds and let the concept grow over time? 

To graduate high school, students must know geometry. My child’s math is still basic multiplication and fractions. We are setting the building blocks. With this in mind, what is the multiplication version of commitment and chasing greatness? 

Maybe the answer is, learn to adapt to the circumstances, come with a great attitude, listen, learn, try your best and get better every day. Compete hard on game day, show up with a great attitude and love football. Maybe we don’t have to make more practice days just because the weather wasn’t on our side. We will strive to make our days count.