What goals do you have when you start your football coaching season? Is it wins and losses, or getting to the championship game? I think that’s fine, as long as you don’t make that your primary goal. We keep score in football, and especially as kids get older we also keep track of standings in the league. One measure of success for a team is how it performs on the field of competition.
In the youth football organization where I cut my teeth as a coach, we tried to make this the primary measure of success: get as many of the kids as possible on your team to come back and play next year. There are so many things that go into maximizing this measure (and I’ll admit that wins/losses is one of them), but my belief is that the primary indicator for each kid is getting specific attention from coaches to align personal goals with team goals.
In order to give this sort of attention, you need to have conversations with players about their goals. This can be a more formal 1x1 between the player and their head or position coach, or can result from casual conversations with players and just paying attention as a coach.
I had a player last season who was a fantastic kicker and a very good running back. As the special teams coach I had a lot of interaction with him, and it became clear to me early on that all this player really cared about was excelling in the kicking game. I made sure that he got plenty of time to work on this in breakout sessions, and we looked for in-game opportunities to give him more changes to kick. The kid booted a 40 yard field goal near the end of the season, which would be a decent feat at the high school level. Turns out this player cared a lot more about kicking the ball than running Rocket Sweep.
That said, I’ll bet if you surveyed your players the one common theme you would see is that every player wants a chance to run or catch the ball. Even the 220 lb right tackle. Football is a team sport though and this generally isn’t a possibility. In my nine years of coaching though we’ve found a way to address this in a small way and I believe it has yielded great results. Sometimes you find a sleeper running back in the process…
We try to give every eligible ball carrier the opportunity to run the ball at least 3–5 times during the season, and we try to give every regular skill position player the chance to score at least once during the season. In our youth league there are weigh limits at each level to be eligible to carry or receive the ball, so some kids are always ruled out each season. Here’s how we approach this for kids that are playing in the non-skill positions:
- Note that we include wide receiver / split end in this category. In the Wing-T, these players just don’t get routine opportunities to catch the ball and we might only have 1–2 players per year have a reception at the WR position.
- Once we have the core offense installed and feel like we can afford some separate breakout training (usually after the 1st or 2nd game of the season), we will identify 2–3 players each week to train up on 1 or 2 plays. We prioritize kids based on attitude and effort, not ability.
- Our head coach and offensive coordinator (same person every year I’ve coached youth football) sets aside 15–25 minutes during 1 or 2 practices during the week to work individually with these players on a specific play. We give them a set of choices and positions, but try to spread out the positions so that when we substitute we aren’t always taking out the same position.
- For example, with 3 different players we might have one player decide to run Down from the fullback position, another run Buck Sweep from the left WB position, and another run Jet Sweep from the right WB position.
- The head coach plays QB and works with the player on proper alignment and footwork and drills the play repeatedly. Depending on the player he might work on both left/right play direction.
How do you manage this during the game? In my experience coaching football, 4–6 of our regular season of eight games end up being blowouts one way or the other. This past season we had only two regular season games that were undecided in the fourth quarter. If you do any scouting, you’ll probably have some indication about what to expect in the upcoming game. The easiest way to integrate these players into the game is when you know you will win by a healthy margin. In this case, you might even be able to keep a player in the position for an entire series (you should also teach them how to run the other plays in a series!). But we’ve found that it is also easy to do this when you are losing by a healthy margin.
In either case, here’s my key point of advice: try to keep your starting offensive line in place when you do this. Do you really want Jimmy, your 80 lb 13 year old wide receiver, trying to run the Down play with your second or third string offensive line on the field? That’s a great way to either get an injury or scare the kid so much he’ll never want to go in again as a running back.
If you look back on the steps I went through to show how we do this, you can draw the obvious conclusion that this is a reasonable way to spread the ball around and incorporate more players into your running game. There’s a great secondary benefit to this though that drives at the key measure of success (get as many of the kids as possible on your team to come back and play next year): the one-on-one time with the head coach, the dialog, the personal instruction, followed by a chance to perform in the game. These together can create stories that the player might talk about for years to come. There have been so many times I’ve seen a player that got a unique opportunity to run the ball after the game talking to parents, grandparents, siblings, etc. about running the ball. I always see a huge smile and an absolute glow with the player and his family.