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What size youth football coaching staff is best?

Posted by John Reed on

Copyright John T. Reed

I was once asked by a youth coach what size coaching staff is best. It's a question to which I think a lot of people need to hear the answer.

Would you believe one coach?

That's right, I think the coaching staff of a youth football team should be one person. Bear with me a bit and I will explain. I will also acknowledge that you probably cannot get away with one. OK, two then.

You may think I am kidding or trying to be funny. I am not. If you hire assistants, it is about 95% certain that you will regret it.

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Six geniuses

The typical football coaching staff consists of six or more persons. On paper, it looks fine. In fact, it looks like they could use several more. Especially if you figure one position coach for each position group, three coordinators, and a head coach. In theory, that would be ideal.

So what's the problem? The problem is that additional coaches beyond one do not add to the team if they are incompetent or if they disagree with the head coach as to the correct approach.

I coached sixteen seasons at the youth and high school levels. I have also observed coaching staffs at the other levels of the organizations I was in. And I have observed stuff going in in my opponents' coaching staffs to an extent. Plus, on a daily basis, I talk to youth, junior high school, high school, college, and NFL coaches on the phone and at clinics.

90% disagree

Based on all those observations, I would say that the percentage of coaches who do not agree with their head coach's approach is about 90%. Among that 90% are two groups:

1. those who express their disagreement verbally to the head coach or behind his back or via body language

2. those who work extremely hard to completely hide their disagreement so they do not get fired.

Is this just a youth problem? No way. Remember Buddy Ryan punching out Kevin Gilbride on the sideline of an NFL game on national TV? Or just this past year, much of the media buzz before the Denver-Atlanta Super Bowl was about Dan Reeves firing Mike Shanahan when Shanahan was Reeves' assistant in Denver. The reason for the firing? Reeves felt Shanahan was insubordinate, that is, Reeves said, "Do this" and Reeves felt Shanahan disagreed with what Reeves wanted and went ahead and did his own thing instead. I do not know what happened between Reeves and Shanahan, but I have seen or heard about that same behavior pattern on coaching staffs a zillion times.

I had to fire one youth coach for insubordination and I resigned in mid-season on another occasion when I tried to fire an assistant and was not allowed to do so.

I would say the problem is worse at the youth level. In high school and higher, the assistants generally respect the authority of the head coach. But at the youth level, the attitude of almost all the assistants is they know as much or more as the head coach and he just got the job because of tenure or office politics.

Typical staff

The typical coaching staff has a drill period where every coach takes his position group and works with them. Then the team gets together for larger group activities and the position coaches become nonpersons. They stand off to the side talking to each other, often about what's wrong with the coordinator's approach.

Except for individual drill period, the team is run entirely by the offensive and defensive coordinators, or maybe even by the head coach alone. The one or two coaches who really run the team pay little or no attention to the position coaches when it comes to depth chart, substitution, game-day, or practice-schedule decisions. About the only real authority the position coaches have is deciding what drill to run for ten or fifteen minutes of each practice and in pre-game warmups. For the rest of practice and game day, they are wall flowers who merely stand around off to the side watching the coordinators do everything. According to the book The Undefeated about Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma teams that set the still-standing win streak record at 47, Wilkinson and Gomer Jones “…did 99.% of all meaningful coaching at the University of Oklahoma.”

I would not accept such a role unless I was new to that level and therefore able to learn a lot just from standing around. Even then, I probably would move on after a year or two. I do not understand why so many coaches accept such a demeaning role year after year.

Incompetence

Incompetence is the rule below the high school varsity head coach/offensive coordinator/defensive coordinator level. Some high school J.V. and freshman head coaches are competent. At the youth level, it is rare to have even a competent head coach, let alone competent assistants.

Some may protest, "But my defensive coordinator played college ball!" That doesn't make him a competent youth coach. It probably does make him opinionated about his approach or the approach of his college coach, neither of which is likely to coincide with your approach.

Do not permit incompetent coaches on your staff unless you are training them and they accept that wholeheartedly. That sounds like an obvious piece of advice, but if it's so obvious how come about 95% of the youth coaches in the U.S. are incompetent? If you only hire competent youth coaches or egoless trainees, you will probably have a one-man coaching staff because you will generally not be able to find anyone who is competent or admits he is not. Letting people join your staff because they are nice guys who played a little football in high school or college and want to help out so they can coach their sons is a very bad idea. Don't do it.

Do not hire competent coaches if they disagree with your approach. OK, suppose you have found one of the rare competent youth coaches. He has been a successful youth coach and is willing to join your staff. Should you hire him? Probably not. Why not? He probably thinks your approach is wrong. I say that without even knowing what your approach is. I just know that everyone has different fingerprints, different voice prints, different retinas, and different opinions on how to run a football team. His resistance to your approach will almost certainly more than nullify the contribution from his competence.

Relatives

If you get along with them, relatives make good members of your staff. I have seen brother-brother coaching staffs (my high school coaches), father-in-law-son-in-law coaching staffs, father-son coaching staffs (me and my son one season, also the very successful Oak Grove Roughriders), and even husband-wife coaching staffs (at the college level no less).

Oak Grove Roughriders head coach Mark Tyrell has a 142-7 record with four national championships. According to his Web site, his staff consists of himself as head coach and offensive coordinator, a long-time friend who has been his defensive coordinator since 1981, and Tyrell's son Daniel. They also have a scout and equipment manager. I would expect that none of the Roughriders coaches currently has a son on the team and that years when one did have a son on the team have been rare. Note that they do not have the typical seven-man coaching staff.

DeLa Salle High School is near where I live. They are arguably the best high school football team ever. They set a national record 151-game win streak. I was an observer coach on the opposite sideline at their 150th win which was over Monte Vista—a school where I was at that time the freshman head coach. In 1998, DLS was ranked first in the nation. They made a movie about the team called When the Game Stands Tall. I do not know exactly how their staff truly functions, but my observations of their spring practice one year and occasional observations at passing league and such since gave me the impression that the team is mainly run by head coach Bob Ladouceur and athletic director Terry Eidson. As with most successful teams, those two coaches have been working together for many years.

One of the things I hate about youth sports in nepotism and cronyism—EXCEPT when it comes to selecting a coaching staff. In that one area, I believe they are almost mandatory. You must know that your staff is not pursuing seven separate agendas.

Chinese Wall between offense and defense

Another type of coaching staff (two men only) I have seen work is the kind where one guy strictly does offense and the other strictly does defense. One of them is usually also the head coach, but he does not interfere with the other side of the ball. They have coached together for years, know their side of the ball, stay totally out of the other's department, and keep up a running banter about the superiority of their department over their colleague's department.

Example exchange: "Great bat-down, Johnny, proving once again that real men play defense." "That was a good bat-down, Johnny. Now if you ever get good enough to catch that ball, we'll make you a receiver."

Schedule

Most coaches would say, "How can you coach 20 to 50 boys with just two coaches?" I agree it's tricky. But it is far easier to figure out how to schedule a two-man coaching staff than it is to overcome human nature on a seven-man staff.

Basically, each coach has a unit like offense or defense and each coaches four positions. For example, the defensive coach might also coach the defensive line, inside linebackers, outside linebackers, and defensive backs. He cannot be two places at once so he coaches each position at a different time. For example, he might spend a half hour after each team practice working with the position group of the day. Or he might spend 20 minutes before team practice with one position group and 20 minutes after team practice with another.

Team size

Don Markham is one of the most successful high school coaches. His team set the current high-school single-season scoring record. He will not allow more than 22 players on his team. I don't know that I would go that far, but I think the one- or two-man staff approach implies that you set some reasonable limit on the number of players on the team.

Discipline

The fewer coaches you have, the less time you have to screw around with problem players. So a one- or two-man coaching staff implies less patience with chronically-misbehaving players. Explain this to the players and parents at the beginning of the season, then throw any violators off the team.

If you follow my advice to hire only competent coaches who truly believe in your approach or who will absolutely stay out of your department, you will almost certainly end up with a one- or two-man coaching staff. You will also enjoy your season far more and your team will be much more successful. If you continue to allow every Tom, Dick, and Harry who volunteers to be a coach to join your staff, you will continue to waste inordinate amounts of time arguing over the correct approach and undoing the harm done by assistants who inadvertently or deliberately deviate from your approach.

Coaches' sons

With some exceptions, coaches' sons are generally the biggest pains in the butt on the team and the hardest kids to coach. They tend not to listen to their father, and, because he is a member of the coaching staff, they are less respectful of the rest of the staff. The fewer coaches you have, the fewer coaches' sons, and that's good. If you must have assistants, prefer coaches who have no kids on the team.

Send me your assistant-coach horror stories

I am having great difficulty convincing coaches that they should avoid all but the most trusted assistants. To help convince head coaches that I am not kidding, I want to start a collection of assistant-coach horror stories. These are true stories of how your assistants figured you were an idiot and worked against you behind your back. I will be glad to keep your identity secret. Examples include, but are not limited to:

  • waging a political campagin aginst you with the board and parents
  • putting in plays or defenses that you rejected when you miss a night of practice
  • showing disapproval of your approach to the players with body language and comments in front of the players
  • turning every coaches meeting into a debate over the fundamental direction of the team throughout the season
  • countermanding your express orders to players
  • whining incessantly about the "critical" need to do more of something or less of something

Here’s a letter I got from one coach.

Timing is everything. I was just going through some of your articles the other day and read your solicitation of parent/coaches stories. Mine is probably typical, so I'll be brief as possible.

Three years ago I made a coaching sin (at the time I didn't know better). I was asked to be a head coach two days into practice of a Pop Warner 7 to 9 year old team. Well two weeks into practice, a father introduced himself and his son. After a brief conversation practice started and ended as normal. After practice the father asked if he could help out. Being short of assistants (one) or so I thought I accepted his offer, although I did not know anything about him. He proceeded to hint that his child should be given a shot at QB. Due to the facts that his child missed over two weeks of practice, would not participate when he got tired and acted hurt every time there was contact I said no. Well, I did not fire him and the season went on with him continually trying to establish his kid as QB.

The next year, due to coaching shortages, I volunteered to stay at the same level while his kid and mine moved up to the older level. He influenced the head coach at that level to do the same, but this coach succumbed to his wishes.

Then, as our local Pop Warner board prepared for its April meeting last year, this parent filed a complaint against me charging that I was a bad coach, bad example to the community and anything else he could fit into his complaint. Fortunately, others and I knew this was an extremely poor attempt to have me removed as a coach since his child would have been on my team that year. The complaint did not even yield a vote since it was such a sham. But after careful thought and consideration, I stepped down since the risk/reward factor of being coach of a team with a parent like that was not worth it.

Needless to say, the coach of that team, different from the year prior, allowed this kid to be QB without competition. In fact, the kid missed his normal two or more weeks to start, but this year the parent smartened up and submitted a "tryout tape" of his kid performing QB drills. The year was miserable for the head coach, for there were a few arguments (the head coach let the parent be a coach, offensive no less) and a very unsuccessful season again.

This past winter, instead of trying to have me removed, they (the parent and a couple of his board cronies) sang my praises as a coach and community contributor, but said I just need to learn "to get along" with others. The others being the parent and a second parent he is friendly with (coach in the organization) that has a kid on the level I would have coached this year.

The problem they encountered was that the general board votes in the coaches and neither of these parents have any coaching knowledge or any other positive attributes to get elected by the board in an election against me, even though they are board members and one is vice president. So under the guise of an organizational coaches meeting they tried to convince me to have these two persons as assistant coaches for this season that just commenced. A few days after this "coaches meeting" I received a letter stating that the Executive board would not allow me to be a coach if I did not allow these two parents to be on my coaching staff. To say the least, I walked away and took my kids out of the program. Unfortunately, many parents did the same, for the numbers are down 25 to 50% from the prior year, depending on the level in question. Numbers are down over 40% from two years ago total. The numbers are so bad and low that there is a chance that one to three levels will not be fielded this year. Unfortunately for the kids in the community, this organization is run by this parent and his cronies or people who don't have the backbone to do what is right for "all" the kids.

Here’s another letter from a coach:

Assistant Coach Horror story
Mr. Reed,
Although I've had my share of "awkward" assistants in the past, I never defined one as a horror story before this past baseball season. Since you asked for submissions, let me add one. A little information about myself; Like most youth coaches, I got into this volunteer profession as my son grew and became interested in sports. However I'm addicted for some insane reason and now that my son is playing school ball, I still get a big enjoyment working with today's youth. I coach baseball and football - I'm not that knowledgeable about basketball and soccer doesn't do much for me.
In baseball, I coach a Pony League team, age 13-15. Last year, there was a player coming up from Little League who was an exceptional left handed pitcher. Since I had a disastrous season the year before (another story), I had the first pick in our draft. This player's father has always helped out with his son's teams and through the years, I've come to know him well...or so I thought. No doubt he was knowledgeable about baseball and was always involved with his son's activities. He expressed a desire for his son to be on my team and I thought by drafting his son, I would also be picking up a good assistant. Boy, was I wrong!
His son was fortunate enough to also make the junior varsity baseball team. This wasn't a huge problem since practice schedules seldom conflicted and only the first game would be missed for a conflict with the last school game.
I was under the assumption that they would make as many practices as possible. However I came to find out that not only was his son playing for the school team and the recreation team, he was also playing with a travel team! Therefore the boy and his father never made one practice prior to our season starting. He missed the first game due to the scheduling conflict with the school but also the second game because he wanted a "break" between seasons. When they showed up for our third game, the first thing the father looked at was the line up and wanted to know why his son wasn't starting. I was amazed that I had to explain to him that since they had not contributed any time to this team yet, that I couldn't insert him into a starting roll just yet. The father felt that his son's time with the other two teams made up for the lack of practice time with my team. However I stuck to my guns. The boy copped an attitude and sulked in the dugout the whole game and complained. As the game wore on, the father asked me why his son was still not in the game. I again had to explain to him that I refused to play a person that would since in the dugout and pout and complain the whole game. Eventfully I pulled the kid aside, explained my position and had him play the last two innings of the game.
As the season wore on, I continually had to defend my position with this assistant coach about whether his son opened a game or closed the game and other little things as to when to pull him out or leave him in. If his son was having a bad day on the mound, his father wanted to pull him out to protect his stats. The way we select our all-star team is that the head coach nominates the players on his team that he feels are worthy of being placed on the all-star team. The coach of the all-star team then chooses from that list. No player is supposed to be told he was nominated or not. I nominated three kids on my team and not my first round draft pick. Naturally the father found out and questioned me about it. I explained to
him that although I felt his son had the talent to be on a high-caliber team like that, it also required good sportsmanship and a team attitude - neither of which I felt either of them displayed that season.
Unfortunately, those two accused me of having some sort of grudge against them and will probably appreciate it when they find out I'm releasing him back into the draft next year. However the good side is that I had several people that expressed their approval of the way I handled the situation.
In any case, I guess we all live and learn. Your list of most common mistakes that youth coaches make is right on. I'd like to comment on a few of them:

* Having any assistant coaches who are not your brother, sister, son, father, spouse, or other close relative or longtime personal friend.
Bingo! My best assistant coach ever is my brother-in-law. Although we may not always see eye-to-eye, he never stabs me in the back and we know where each of us stands.
* Wasting practice time on conditioning and low-priority . An efficient
Bingo again (although my brother-in-law likes some of these drills). I stay away from most of these time wasters. I do usually have sprints and laps but mostly for disciplinary purposes. I hate having a practice where players run a lot but for whatever reason, I've found these guys respond if I make them run laps or sprints for mistakes. It works! Every year my new offensive linemen will always fail to line up properly until they're made to run a couple of laps for being offside. No ask me why - I just know it works.
* Subjecting players to sadistic football rituals like leg raises or bull in the ring in the name of conditioning or toughening.
Agree and disagree. Agree that these things shouldn't be done in the name of conditioning. Let's face it, most of these boys are already in fine shape. However, the bull-in-the-ring drill is a favorite of theirs. They normally ask if we can do that and I use that as "team pleaser".
* Taking more than 20 to 30 seconds per play in practice. The typical youth football practice features coaches talking for three to five minutes between each play while the players stand around listening or staring into space.
I agree! Run a play, fix one thing, run it again, fix another, etc. You don't get good listening 100% of the time. It takes repetitions!
* Failing to practice and perfect administrative duties like getting substitutes in and out of the game on time.
Learned this one the hard way my first year of coaching football 5 years ago. My first game was a disaster with substitutions. Glad I figured it out with the second game.
* Varying the snap count (or even having a snap count), thereby causing false starts, which, in turn, result in punting away possession of the ball on the series in which the false start occurred.
I usually only have two snap counts. Usually my team goes on the first snap count or if the defensive team is being too aggressive, I will throw in a few "no-plays" where the team doesn't move. If the defense doesn't jump offside, my qb is instructed to call a timeout. I've only had this fail once in the past three years. After you do this about once or
twice a half, the defense usually backs down.
* Giving prestigious positions out on the basis of nepotism rather than ability and team need.
My problem was the opposite. When my son played youth ball, I made sure no one could accuse me of showing him too much favoritism. Because of this, I felt I did him wrong. Luckily he understands and we have a great relationship.
* Failing to insist on ten minutes per practice of perfectly executed form tackling.
To be honest, sometimes this isn't enough. I learned this the hard way too. Why didn't I find your book earlier?
* Failing to insist that kickoff and punt returners catch the kick in the air.
Catching a kick in the air is one of the easiest ways to score a touchdown. So few teams do it.
* Failing to scout upcoming opponents.
Unfortunately for me, in the football league I'm in, all the coaches are good at scouting.
* Failing to videotape all games and some practices, identify problem areas, and fix them.
Believe it or not, I've just starting doing this, this year! Man is it a big help! It doesn't require a lot of reviewing to find problem areas. Usually I can watch a game in about an hour and half plenty of fixes to keep me busy at the next practice.
* Having too many plays, formations, and defenses. You should have about four to twelve plays (the older the players, the more plays), one or two offensive formations, and one or two defenses. You do not need more and it will be a bear just to teach that many.
Kids age 11-13, three formations, double wing 95% of the time with a couple of twists to keep it interesting. 7 running plays, 3 passing plays.
* Substituting minimum-play players as an entire 11-man unit (usually with a non-minimum-play quarterback and running back). Minimum-play players should only be
Disagree on this one. Although I won't do this in a tight game, I will if I'm in control of a game. Usually for one play and then they're out..unless they're moving the ball for first downs. In last night's game, after I had a 3-td lead, I started using my "B" team for extra points. They got the next two extra points and came off the field feeling like they scored the winning touchdown.” Mark Wettstein

And another email from a reader:

Hello Mr.Reed, I've read a lot of your football coaching material.... Last year was my first year coaching youth football ... and long story short one of the [assistant coaches] started trying to take over and eventually was going around with another parent with a petition to get me out as head coach,  I went to league and they said they would have a meeting on it , ...I stepped down, too much drama and and the [assistant] took over and they went winless ( we [had a winning record] when I was coach) ...when I read your advice on that I was amazed at how accurate it was.

Name left out by me to avoid political problems in that league


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