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.
As I mentioned in the last blog, we won our follow up game after our first loss. We had a solid week of practice, but with it getting darker earlier and the temperature dropping, I felt like I noticed a little slip and energy and focus.
I remember talking to a multi-time state champion at the 5-A level (second largest division) about youth football. He, like a lot of high school coaches, was very involved in his local youth program. He told me with the kids he would (and advised others to) always start early, keep seasons shorter and end early. His two major points were that nobody at age eight, nine, or ten wants to be out there in the cold. It makes practice and games miserable. He said they also lose interest so much quicker than older kids, so he values keeping them wanting more. Make the game super fun and a great experience while never dragging on, getting boring or leaving a bad taste.
I think some of that goes back to what I said last week about distractions and consistency. Most youngsters just don’t have the tools to block it out and focus when it’s cold and yuck. Plus, I think he is correct on the dosage. Key it simple. Seven to ten games, good weather, tons of fun, not cold, wet and miserable. Keep them coming back for more.
Back to us. With the weather just starting to turn, we won the following game in a bit of an arm-wrestle that we gutted out. This put us at 6-1 and qualifying for the playoffs with the number two seed. We had a first-round bye and that put us in the quarterfinals.
I do think we were a top seed. If you ask me, there were three teams that stood out. Those three were the top three seeds, and I would have guessed about midyear that one of us would be champions.
Now here is where the story takes an unforeseen left turn thanks to an awkward circumstance.
USA Football is a football organization. We work in football. But fall is traditionally our down time. We do tons of work in “clinic season” (January-March) and the summer preparing for the season. In the fall, during the true season, we are not doing as much educational training or camps. Coaches are on the field with their players. Players are on the field with their team. There is not a lot of space for coaching and player events. Because of this, fall is our down time from doing stuff but serves as our strategic planning season in preparation for next year.
Our once a year all-staff strategic planning conference is traditionally in the fall. Post-covid, as a remote office, these have also become staff retreats. A great chance for everyone to connect, do some deep planning work but also develop relationships and do some team building. This is especially true for cross-department relationships.
Guess when the meeting was this year? Tuesday through Friday. Guess when the second round of the playoffs, our first playoff game, was scheduled for? You guessed it, Thursday!
I would not be there. To make matters worse, unpublished up until this point, the head coach of our team is also a USA Football employee! We are friends, get a long great and actually work in the same department. It makes coaching together awesome, until you both have to go to the same event for the playoff game.
Our second assistant would now be running the team with two parent helpers. Coach S. is another guy I really like, a coach I'd love to work with next year as a three-person staff, but it was a tough situation for him. He, like me, was an assistant because he couldn’t be there all the time due to work and travel. He also had never called plays. I felt bad. Talk about being put in a rough situation.
Furthering the challenge, one of our players, a massive contributor and excellent player, was going to be unavailable for the game. They had an overnight school field trip Thursday into Friday when they would be back home with family for the weekend. Gulp.
The short story is we ended up losing the game 7-0.
Apparently, the offense just couldn’t get it rolling. We played tough and played good defense but failed to make the plays we had in the other games to always win those close matches. We had a player break a thumb early, so now we were down multiple players, and it complicated our substitutions. Young players traditionally don’t handle big changes or breaks in routine well. One of our top three players was not there. Losing his replacement to an injury, head coach and defensive coordinator not there … When added all up, we lost.
Fair play to the other team. I’m certainly not going to be one of those guys who discredits his opponents.
I have to be honest; I was heartbroken. I felt bad for the boys. They were such an awesome group, so much fun to coach and had grown so much. I 100% was burnt by not being there. No ego, not saying it would have made the difference, but you always want to be there to support the team and help lead them, win or lose.
It would be a complete lie to say my son didn’t have a lot to do with it. I coach because I enjoy it, no matter who the players are, but getting to coach your son is special. Not being there for him hurt the most. That statement isn’t about scheme or corrections or winning. After a tough loss and the season being over, I think every parent hopes to be there for their child.
We were able to FaceTime, I could talk to him, tell him I was proud of him, I loved him and work though some of the frustration. By the time I got home two days later, he was over it, and we did fun things. We kept doing our ‘training.’ We played catch and ran around the backyard. Kids hate losing but tend to get over it much faster than older players.
Something funny also happened. The weekend after the championship we did not get to play in, my son was invited to a birthday party for a fellow teammate. I hadn’t seen this player since our last day of practice, having missed the game. The first thing he did when he saw me drop my son off at the party was tell me about his sacks, the holding penalty he forced and the good plays he made. We lost, but he was, like my son, happy, focused on his growth, the things he did well and the future he has playing again next year.
Losses stink, but players that see themselves get better, are proud of their growth and look forward to next year … aren’t those the metrics that matter most?