Free Special Report on the most common mistakes youth coaches make
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Copyright 1999 John T. Reed

One of the many ways youth sports differ from high school and higher levels is the wide range of ability levels on the team. In the NFL, every player is one of the top 50 or so guys at his position in the world. On the typical sub-teen youth team, you have a kid who will star in high school mixed in with a dozen or more kids who will stop playing sports in junior high school. Unfortunately, youth coaches and administrators do not recognize this fact and respond appropriately.

The key to unhappiness in amateur sports is mixing players or different ability levels on the same team. The better players resent the weaker ones and vice versa. Youth baseball does a decent job of fixing this by having majors, minors, and all-stars. Youth soccer leagues also have multi levels as well as elite traveling teams. But youth football leagues generally only categorize players by age and weight.

If the coach has absolute discretion as to whom to play and how much, he can fix his problem by benching weaker players. But this is not good for the benchees. In most youth football leagues, the problem is exacerbated by minimum-play rules. I found I could live with a four-play or six-play minimum as a coach, but I could not live with a 12-play minimum. I would refuse to coach in such a league.

I recently observed a league where only 22 may be on each team and all must start. No effort is made to separate players by ability. The result was a league in which a few athletes on each team run around playing against a few opposing athletes on the other team while about 18 or 20 kids make a perfunctory effort at blocking or rushing momentarily at the snap, then turn around and watch the athletes.

The fact that you have future college players and future chess club members on the same youth team makes it especially comical that most youth coaches are trying to imitate TV football.

Survey your talent

The first two weeks of practice, you must survey your team to see what you've got. Measure

Keep a written record of the test results. I have shut up several unhappy parents over the years with those results. Parents do not like it when you make one or two kids the stars of the team. You really have no choice on most youth football teams because your personnel consist of one or two stars, a bunch of average non-athletic kids, and a few really non-athletic kids.

One father who did not know who I was complained to me that his kid had been demoted to second-string wing after years of starting. I told him I was the offensive coordinator and that I had demoted him. He said his kid was really fast. I said, "No, he's not," and turned to the ten and twenty-yard dash pages of my coaching binder. His kid was bottom half of the team in both tests. He then said his kid was really elusive. I said, "No, he's not" and turned to the elusiveness test page where his kid was again bottom half. In fact, his kid was indeed a good player. The problem was the kid had been at the top of the age level on his last three teams, but now he was on the midgets (12,13,14) where he was at the bottom of the age level. He subsequently was a star on that team, but only after the older kids moved up to high school and he went from being 12 to being 14.

Pretend they are equal?

To a large extent, youth sports have become phony self-esteem encounter groups. For years now, everyone has gotten a trophy just for showing up. Parents pressure coaches to make no differentiation between players. A different group of players gets to be "captains" for each game. At the year-end pizza party, coaches are expected to say nice things about each player. They have trouble shutting up about the stars and strain to find something good to say about the weak players: great smile, most improved, always on time. In baseball, they want each player to play each position. One of my football parents wanted the same thing. We would have been beaten 100-0 every week if I had done that. Even the parents that recognize everyone cannot be quarterback, still want the coaches to pretend that the players' abilities are equal. The league where everyone starts is an example. This is all premised on the notion that the kids are too stupid to know what's going on. They are not.

I have no objection to dividing kids up into minors, majors, and traveling teams. Indeed, I strongly urge it. But to put kids who rate a 9 on the athletic-ability scale on the same team with kids who rate a 1, and ask the coach to pretend the players are of equal ability is absurd.

Mixing abilities hurts confidence

Putting kids with widely disparate athletic abilities on the same team destroys the confidence of the weaker players. In 1992, my son and several of his baseball teammates were stars in the 9-10 minors league. After the regular season, they had a summer league. But it consisted of players not age 9 and 10, but age 9 through 12. Furthermore, the ability levels ranged from minors to majors.

My son and his star teammates played awful in that summer league. Kids who had dazzled in the field during the regular season now could not catch a routine grounder to save their lives. My son was the top or second best hitter on the team in the regular season. He managed to get just one infield hit in the summer league. In youth football, the weaker athletes generally curl up into the fetal position figuratively speaking, when they recognize that they are much less able to perform than the stars. This is especially true in contact. In other words, they have, say, a 4 level of ability, but in a league of kids with 8 and 9 ability, they psychologically retreat and perform like a 1. There is no fix for this when the league is thus configured. I was a coach on that summer-league team and tried everything.

Star packages

If your league crams the everybody's-equal rules down your throat and insists on mixing top athletes with non-athletes, the best football strategy is probably to create a group of your three or four stars. Design your plays as if it were four-man football then move them around in the eleven-man formation as needed for the play you want to run at the moment. Your four-man team might have a center, lineman, quarterback/running back, and running back/receiver. If you want to run a blast, you put the lineman at left guard, the running back at offset halfback on the left side and have the qb follow the running back's block through the 1 hole (gap between the center and left guard).

If you want to sweep right, the lineman plays tight end or pulling right guard, the running back plays right wing, and the qb carries the ball. And so forth. You may think that would tip off what play was coming to the opponent. You bet it would. But what are you going to do? Try to run behind the block of a kid who refuses to block? By running a no-huddle, you could limit the opponent's ability to adjust. If you ran up against a smart opponent who created a defensive star package, you need to see if your stars are better than their stars. If not, you need to get tricky.

Refuseniks

On many youth football teams, there are players who simply refuse to try to play well. They are typically very small or very timid and they are afraid. One season, we spent six weeks training a couple of small eight-year olds to play offensive line on a 8-10 year old team. In the first game, they took one look at the huge 10-year olds on the opposite side of the ball and decided to spend the game getting out of their way. We got killed. We were down 22-0 at halftime including the only safety one of my teams gave up other than on purpose. In the second half, when we no longer had to play those kids, we got a 0-0 tie. That was my first game as a head coach. I moved those kids to flanker and we became one of the top two or three offensive teams in the 30-team league. One of their fathers got in my face subsequently and made noises as if he were going to beat me up for putting his kid at flanker. The kid stayed at flanker. The kids in question won't admit it to their fathers, but they want to be at flanker or some other relatively easy position during their first year.

When I coached a 7th-and-8th grade team in a league with predominantly 9th-grade teams, many of my players refused to go on the field claiming nonexistent injuries or illnesses.

There is nothing you can do about these players in that situation. Many of them blossom later when they are among the oldest kids, but I have never seen a kid who was that big-time afraid straighten out during the same season. (All of us were somewhat afraid of contact during the first couple of months of our football careers. That's normal. Here I am talking about kids who refuse to try.)

Offense: far away from the ball

On offense, the best thing you can do is get these kids far away from the ball. Make them wide receivers, but do not throw them passes unless they can catch, which they generally cannot. Some coaches try to put them on one side of the offensive line then run the other way. Sorry, but that does not work. The weak players are too close to the ball and the bad guys will zoom through and tackle you for a loss.

We were driving to tie in the 1992 state championship semi-finals when we had to put a minimum-play player in for three more plays. He went in at weak-side guard for three successive plays. He let his man through every play and our drive that had gone about 60 yards so far suddenly went in reverse as we got tackled for losses on every play he was in by the defender playing opposite him.

When I was a freshman high school coordinator, I had an eager, but awful offensive lineman. He kept sneaking onto the field in practice. The offense would be doing great. Then suddenly we would stall out and the head coach would start yelling at the offense for being so lousy they could not even beat the scout team. After this happened several times, I learned that the first place to look was left tackle where this kid would sneak into the formation and let his man through every play. Just one weak guy being on the field in the interior line destroyed our entire offense.

Defense: one at a time for just one play at a time

On defense, I slipped my weak players into the defensive line if they were average or above average in size. But we were never weak at the same spot for two plays in a row. We'd have a weak guy at right defensive tackle for one play then he'd be out. Next play we would have a different weak guy at left defensive guard, then he would be out.

One of the weak players I was assigned was much too tiny for defensive line. I was defensive coordinator and strongly protested his being assigned to the defense. I wanted him to be a flanker on offense. I would play him at right corner on one play, then take him out. Several plays later he would go in at left linebacker for one play, then come out. In one game, against the Manteca Delta Rebels, one of their players blocked him back about 30 yards on one play. The ref got angry about a big kid picking on a tiny kid and threw a flag for unnecessary roughness.

The following year, that tiny guy was a little bit bigger, not much, and became the 1 in my 10-1 defense. He led the team in assists and was second in tackles. In general, extremely weak players who do not have a devastating experience their first year will come back and become good players in subsequent years. This is especially true of the lowest and highest levels in youth football. It is important that you tell the parents and players about this phenomenon in your parent meeting and initial practice.

Special teams: F'get about it

Can you put these guys in on special teams? No way.

What can they do?

In my experience, extremely weak rookies can do a few things as long as they are not refuseniks. They can play defensive line if they are average or big in size. They can do crack back and stalk blocks as wide receivers. (Eight-year olds are too dumb to crack back because they do not understand the clipping rules.) They can decoy your opponent's best players by lining up wide, going in motion, and running clearing routes. (Eight-year olds are too dumb to go in motion legally.)

What can't they do?

These players cannot block close in, catch, run with the ball, tackle, cover receivers, or pass. If anyone doubts that, typically their fathers, just hold a little competition at practice and show them. One father chewed us up one side and down the other for making his kid a minimum-play player. Said his kid was not getting any chance to show what he could do with just six plays per game. We told him to come to practice. He did and at the end of practice he apologized and said, "You're right. He's not ready."

If you put extremely weak players in a position in a game where they must do one of the things they cannot do, you are some kind of nut. It is cruel to the kid in question to send him to certain failure, and it nullifies all the efforts made by everyone else associated with the team. The football team chain is only as strong as its weakest link. If you put an extremely weak player where he cannot possibly perform as needed, the chain will break and the team will fail on that play. In a close game, that often costs your team the game. In a tight race, that often costs your team a spot in the playoffs or advancing in the playoffs.

I give these players every opportunity in practice. One kid asked to be a running back. I suspect his father put him up to it. He had the talent, but not the mentality. I made him running back on the scout team. After about eight carries, and being tackled eight times, he told the scout team coach he did not want to do that anymore. We made no effort to give him a hard time or anything. We were focused on getting the offense prepared for the next opponent. I just told the scout coach to use him as the main running back and forgot about it. He simply did not like being the target of my first-string defenders.

As coach, one of your jobs is to deliver the bad news to certain parents that their kid did not mutate away from their lousy genes as far as athletic ability is concerned, or that one athletic parent's decision to marry an unathletic spouse has now come home to roost. Too many coaches who lack the guts to deliver that bad news are screwing up their teams by putting extremely weak players in roles they have no hope of playing.

Cut for "own safety"

I once coached for an organization that cut players "for their own safety." League rules prevented them from cutting unless they had more than 35 try out. But they cut when they had fewer try out explaining that they were concerned about the kid's safety. That's a crock.

They tried to cut one such kid the year I was there. I fought to keep him and we did. He did fine. He was weak. The real problem was the coaches did not respect him because he was such a poor athlete. But I thought he was trying hard and had heart and I knew that many weak players blossom during the season, including me the first year I played. In theory, the "for his own safety" situation could arise. But I find the kids take care of that on their own. Few of them are suicidal. They quit the team or feign injury or illness or avoid contact during games. I would back cutting kids for lack of trying to do their best. But I think the "cut for his own safety game" is just a ploy to get around league rules against cutting when you have less than the maximum number try out.

We never cut anyone "for his own safety" at the San Ramon Bears and none of our extremely weak players was ever hurt.

The Bataan Death March pre-season

Another unethical ploy used to get rid of extremely weak players is to treat them like crap during the pre-season. Weak players are made to endure all sorts of physical punishment like laps, or they are totally ignored.

When my oldest son was eight, he went out for the San Ramon Valley T-Birds. They had 72 kids out for 35 slots. He had never played before and weighed the league minimum 60 pounds. The practices were so brutal I told my wife I had never seen anything like it in my own high school football, West Point (my alma mater), or in my army paratroop or ranger training. Then, they set my son and six other players aside and completely ignored them for an hour and a half of the two-hour practices every night. (They fully participated in the laps and calisthenics.) Once, when my son and his ignored buddies picked up a football and started tossing it around playing catch, a coach came over and made them put it down. They were only allowed to stand silently watching the practice they were not allowed to participate in. It eventually became apparent that they did not want these kids and were trying to get them to quit. None did, so they were all cut. The head coach told me my son was "afraid."

I was afraid my son had been totally turned off to football. But the day after he was cut, my son switched to the San Ramon Bears, who were short of players. There, he sacked the quarterback twice in the first five minutes of practice and went on to a career as a youth and high school fullback, tailback, linebacker, and cornerback which has so far lasted eleven years. He was the starting tailback on the #2 team in the state of California as a high school senior. He was recruited for football by Dartmouth and Yale and a bunch of Division III colleges and is now a tailback at Columbia University.

In-between players

A reader asked about in-between kids who are trying hard and somewhat successful. I always had three groups of kids:

The "half-time" players were kids who shared a position with another player because they were both decent and equal. I also used them as injury substitutes for the starters. What I said in the earlier parts of this article refers only to extremely weak players who do not want to be there or who are totally ineffective because of size, athletic ability or timidity.

Good luck,

John T. Reed