Journal of a Youth Coach 2023: Developing ownership and leadership in young players

By Andy Ryland | Posted 9/18/2023

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. 

We practice at a large community field. I think there have been up to seven teams practicing there at once. In other seasons, it’s used as a multi-pitch soccer facility. There are no lines for football. Teams just find space in this giant open field. 

At the facility, there is also a park. Pretty standard with a big slide, swings of various sizes and two climbing structures. Lots of the younger brothers and sisters spend most of the practice over there. Separating the field and park is a huge, very steep berm, probably fifteen-yards high and thirty yards long. It appears man made. It may have been designed as a barrier to keep balls or sound or games away from the young kids and families. Maybe, the city was super smart, and they made it just to be a hill at a park. Kids love hills. They climb up and roll down, throw stuff off it and generally do kids stuff.   

It could also, for particular coaches, be brutal conditioning or punishment. I saw a player from another field have to “run to the hill and back” as a punishment. My head instantly jumped to punishment hill sprints. I'm sure a coach has done that; I just haven’t seen. By random circumstances, our team’s practice space is actually adjacent to the hill.  

Our practices could very easily “involve the hill of pain.” I bet it would straighten out a few goofing off young souls. I could easily see it as the type of things older washed-up player talk about over a BBQ, “my old coach used to send us to this hill…” 

Do bad things, run the hill, repeat mistake (maybe), run more hills, stop doing bad things. Pavlov’s dogs and classical conditioning can work. As coaches, I think we also know there are now well-established better ways of teaching and learning. If you want to develop intrinsic motivation and the concept of a “team,” there are certainly better ways than running hills. 

Today, we had a really rough patch at practice. I was not happy, with our focus levels, goofing off in the back of lines and every little micro-breath between drills. I don’t get unhappy with kids easily, so it had to be bad. We were forty minutes in. We had played some fun games as part of our athletic development block and done our first skills block. Coming back from a water break and entering the second skill block, the fourth graders decided to fourth grader things.   

They were struggling to refocus, watching other practices and were in just straight la-la land.   

I tried to grab their attention after the first drill. Tried to add energy to the next drill and get them going again. They were just not there mentally. I warned them it was not up to standard and that we needed to focus and execute. Next drill had good effort, but detail was horrible. I politely reminded them of the score, only two of the six players did the drill correctly. Work on that focus. 

Now here I made a mistake. I didn’t have the next drill set up and had to grab four cones and set them up. By the time I got back, they were full “Lord of the Flies.” The hill was begging, but I took a different approach. 

“You have thirty-seconds,” I said. I didn’t yell, but it was the big, coach voice. “Get in a circle, lock arms, sort it out. You have thirty seconds to talk to each other, figure out these issues and get back to focusing on football and doing a great job.” I walked over and joined the first two players together, and the others got the point. They quickly made a cycle, arms around each other’s shoulders. I walked away. I heard THEIR conversation begin. 

Now I have to be honest, the issue wasn’t fixed. It was better, but I wouldn’t call it great. They came back better but maybe not great. That said, as I spied with my ears walking away and heard the boys talking about focus, paying attention, doing things right, “let's get ready,” “big game coming up,” I was thrilled.   

Punishment is the emotional reaction. Punishment might have been a bigger fix, but I’d guess it would have been short-term. Taking opportunities like this to develop ownership, leadership and self-efficacy can be massive in creating the best person and player in the long run. I could have made them do something hard and fixed my issues with focus. I tried to let them learn to fix things on their own and work as a group. Maybe the short-term effect wasn’t as big, but I think the long-term impact will be better and more meaningful.