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.
Today, after the game, I wanted to make sure a player knew I saw his work.
He is a really nice little athlete; quick, good movement and very strong for his size. Part of his success is his physical gifts which, outside of size, are probably top tier in our league. He is on the smaller side but is an excellent player.
The other part of his success is that he understands football better than most. We have some other good defenders that “see ball, get ball” but may not understand the game as well as him in totality.
Today, all the “visual” plays were made by other people. He ended up being lead blocker on two big runs. The fact that our running back broke multiple tackles on both meant his contributions (to the average fan) were probably lost as everyone cheered for the running back.
He played excellent at defensive tackle and linebacker for us today too. We were playing the biggest team in the league, so a lot of the dirty work went unnoticed, but they struggled to move the ball or get much push in the run. He was playing offensive guard on our two offensive touchdowns. Again, easy to get lost.
Note: Why so many positions and why is our little guy on the line? Our league does position sampling. The game is split in half. One half, the bigs match up on the line of scrimmage and the littles play the skill positions. The second half, the littles are on the line. This works well because they are opposing other players their size.
Side note: The rotation makes for some really cool moments! Our touchdown pass could be seen as our starting guard throwing a swing pass to our starting center. Guard and center are their line positions, but when bigs go to skill position, they become one of our running backs and quarterback.
Back to my guy.
Every football coach knows the value of dirty work. This includes the offensive line players and the defensive tackle that makes a mess of the play, even though someone else makes the tackle. Every football coach loves the blue collar, life at the coalface work that wins games.
Every fan, and maybe some parents without much football knowledge, saw the touchdown pass or the pick-six we had. Everyone cheers the hard, athletic run that gets us a first down.
I wanted to make sure this specific player knew that while today wasn’t his day for big runs, interceptions, or touchdowns, he had played a great game!
After the game, handshakes and snacks, as the team breaks up, the coaches and other parents kind of go around and give the kids high fives, fist bumps and good jobs. I made a point to run over to this player, and sneakily made sure it was in front of his parents (I don’t know their football background), to tell him how much I appreciated his effort and performance.
I don’t remember my exact words, but it was something to the effect of, “I thought you had a great game today and played really well. Today was a workday. A life in the muck, hard day, but you did awesome. Some days you get big runs and touchdowns. Some days you just do the work for the team to win. Sometimes the littles are running all over the field, and sometimes we score all our points when the littles are on the line. Today was just one of those hard job days, but I wanted to let you know I saw you out there working. I thought you did a great job.”
Now I’m not special or a hall of fame coach. Certainly not looking for “look at me’s,” but I think this is an important point.
Offensive line coaches go out of their way to create unique environments and cultures for their players. They know they have thankless positions and do the hard, dirty work. Plus, nobody gets yelled at more from the stands than line players - “you got to block somebody.” In youth programs, you may not have a dedicated O-line coach or space to create that environment. Heck, with my league’s player rotation you may not have a single full-time line player.
So, I guess the larger point is always to make an environment where the hard work and the glue work that keeps a team going forward is celebrated. Also remember specificity and personal is supreme. Saying, “great work by the big boys up front” is one thing. Taking three minutes to talk to an individual player and tell him you are proud of his work might just be the ticket to loving the hard stuff.