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What are the most common mistakes youth football coaches make?

Posted by John Reed on

Copyright 1999, 2000, 2001, 2008 John T. Reed

Every year, I hear coaches making the same mistakes. Drills that look very busy and footballish but which are a waste of time, too much standing around doing nothing in practice, not enough time spent on learning assignments for the next game, failing to scout your opponents, and many more. Study this list and make sure you spend your valuable practice time on useful stuff.

Coachnig Youth Football
  • Having any assistant coaches who are not your brother, sister, son, father, spouse, or other close relative or longtime personal friend. About 95% of youth football head coaches make this mistake. If you have assistant coaches who played football in high school or college and who have kids on the team, most of them will argue endlessly with you about everything. The dissenters will often go against your instructions when your back is turned. Most will bad mouth you to their son and to the other parents on the team. If you miss a practice or game, these men will put in the systems and plays they want and abandon your approach while you are away. If you stand firm against some change they want, some will go to the board and try to get them to order you to do it your assistants’ way or to get you fired. Read my lips. No assistants who are not trusted relatives, proven in past coaching with you, or longtime close personal friends. See my coach staff size article. Most coaches seem to think this can’t be right. Some contact me after the season to say, “You were right. I wish I had listened to you.” Every year I hear from coaches whose main coaching problem is internal, adult politics. The best way I know to deal worth it is an ounce of prevention.
  • Wasting practice time on conditioning and low-priority drills. Instead run a no-huddle during your team periods and focus on tackling and walk-throughs when it comes to drills. You have limited time to practice with your team, so that time must be used efficiently. Running a no-huddle all practice long will allow you to get more work done while conditioning your players. See my report on the warp-speed no-huddle. An efficient practice with minimal standing-around time will take care of conditioning better than pure conditioning drills like calisthenics, gassers, running the stadium steps, grass drills, and the like. Because of limited practice time and the best players usually going both ways, youth coaches can rarely find time for drills. Teaching assignments and making sure each player knows them takes priority and consumes almost all practice time, especially early in the season.
  • Subjecting players to sadistic football rituals like leg raises or bull in the ring in the name of conditioning or toughening. The real reason is to let middle aged men impress kids with how tough the middle-aged men were when they were kids. I should sell tee shirts that say, “the older my coach gets, the better he was and the more oblivious he becomes to how little we care” to youth players
  • 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. Problems must be fixed and that takes as long as it takes, but only the coordinator in charge of the segment should talk out loud and only he should determine when the next play begins.
  • Not working out the details of blocking assignments against various defenses and making sure the players know them.
  • Failing to give centers, long snappers, holders, passers, and option quarterbacks enough reps so they can master their assigned skill. For example, each of the three strings of centers, long-snappers and QBs must get a minimum of 1,200 reps of the snap before the first game. 
  • Failure to use the best athlete on the team as the place-kick holder.
  • Failing to insist that linemen stay lower than their line opponent. This requires massive discipline efforts but there is no alternative. I generally don’t like drills but I advocate a daily one to instill this discipline.
  • 100% platooning, that is, prohibiting any players from playing both offense and defense. The best 11 should be on the field as much as permitted. Typically, that means about seven guys go both ways and you only platoon about four each on offense and defense. Platooning is generally only a college and pro thing because youth and high school teams do not have enough good athletes to platoon. It is a classic nature-versus-nurture problem. Platooning gives you more time to teach, but teaching a weak player is less effective on game day than using a less trained, but superior athlete.
  • Failing to hold a parent meeting at which you explain your offensive, defensive, and special teams schemes and policies on position assignments and playing time.
  • Failing to practice and perfect administrative duties like getting substitutes in and out of the game on time.
  • Neglecting to spend at least 15 minutes on each of the six special teams per week.
  • Ignoring the need to teach and practice clock-management techniques.
  • Killing their own drives by throwing incomplete passes or interceptions. This stems from the notion that one “must” pass about 20% to 50% of the time or risk having one’s coaching manhood questioned. That much passing is fine if your team can execute it, but throwing incompletions and interceptions is not passing. Execution means protecting the passer, which for some reason is especially hard for young players. It also means the receiver getting open fast, accurately throwing to the receiver who is typically a moving target, and catching and securing the ball. This chain of events is a tall order for both youth players and youth coaches.
  • 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.
  • Failing to fix obvious problems like repeated fumbled handoffs or incomplete passes.
  • Giving prestigious positions out on the basis of nepotism rather than ability and team need.
  • Putting all good players in the backfield or at wide receiver and all weak players on the line.
  • Failing to insist on ten minutes per practice of perfectly executed form tackling.
  • Failing to insist that kickoff and punt returners catch the kick in the air whenever possible.
  • Failing to scout upcoming opponents.
  • Running practice scrimmages against your own offense and defense. The one team I guarantee you will not face during the season is your own. You should never run your offense against your defense with the possible exception of an initial scrimmage or two where you are evaluating your players abilities to execute your schemes and you do not yet have scouting information on upcoming opponents. I am talking about the scheme, not the personnel. When you are practicing offense, have your defense line up in the upcoming opponent’s defense, not yours. Ditto when you are practicing defense. Have your offense line up in the upcoming opponent’s formations and run their plays.
  • Failing to videotape all games and some practices, identify problem areas, and fix them.
  • Putting undisciplined good athletes at contain on defense instead of disciplined players.
  • Kicking off and punting to the opponents’ best running backs.
  • Letting receivers backpedal or do 360-degree spins when trying to catch long passes. Just run under it.
  • Letting players hit full speed and tackle to the ground in practice. A month or two of full-speed hitting is necessary to get rookies over their fear of hitting. Veterans need to show the rookies what hitting looks like and feels like. One or two sessions of full-speed hitting are also necessary to ascertain which players belong in the offensive and defensive line and who wants to make tackles. But full-speed hitting should generally be eliminated from practice by the end of the second month. Our first game of the season in 2005 at the freshman high school level was against an inner city team. Their head coach had stepped down after years of being the varsity head coach. He believed in emphasizing hitting. About three-quarters of our players had played youth soccer, never football. They hit the crap out of our kids. I was afraid that our players were going to go into the fetal position. I did not emphasize hitting. To my pleasant surprise, our guys were so disciplined about their assignments that we won the game by a large margin. The game is about assignments, not hitting, although I must add that our kids got pissed and were hitting back as hard as they were getting hit by the end of the game. Bravo! After the game, I made a point of repeating that the game is about assignments and moving the chains and scoring, not a hitting contest.
  • Accepting penalties as an inevitable part of football, or, worse, as a welcome sign of aggressiveness. You will generally be forced to punt or turn the ball over on downs in the same series that you draw a penalty on offense. On defense, penalties enable an opponent who was about to have to punt to you to keep the ball for four more downs.
  • 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.
  • Failing to give your defense enough practice stopping the most difficult plays: sweep, reverse, fake reverse, counter, slant pass, halfback pass.
  • 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 substituted one at a time at flanker (split end if you are using a full-house backfield offense like the double-wing or wishbone) on offense or interior line on defense. An entire offensive unit of minimum-play players will almost invariably go three and out, often losing yards in the process. You only get 6 to 10 possessions a game. An all-MPP defense often gives up a touchdown on every play.
  • Assigning the most junior, inexperienced coach to the offensive line. That was my first assignment when I first started coaching. In my final years, I also coached the offensive line myself as head coach, but then I did it because I had figured out that it is the most important unit and the one most in need of coaching.
  • Thinking that if the players do it, I must drill it. Very few things need to be drilled. See my article on drills.
  • Looking for excuses for losing instead of trying to find ways to win. I am starting a collection of youth-football-coach excuses for losing. If you have heard one not included in this list, please send it to me.

Youth-football-coach excuses for losing

  • We’re slower than other teams
  • Our kids have not been toughened by living in a high-crime neighborhood
  • We have too much recruiting competition from soccer in our area
  • We’re too small
  • I have too many kids who are on Ritalin
  • We don’t have a winning tradition
  • We are a 13-year-old team in a Jewish area and many players miss many Saturday games to attend their own or each other’s Bar Mitzvahs (Sounds like a legit excuse. I just thought it was interesting. And you thought you had problems!)
  • What do you expect from a bunch of mamma's boy's that have never gotten into a fight before...

    Never say or tolerate statements which follow the format: “We have no hope of winning because of the following facts which are outside of our control:__________.” Either focus on finding ways to win among the things which are in your control or get out of the way and let someone else do it.

    I attended several youth practices just to observe. Except for visiting the practices of a four-time Pop Warner world champion coach, I have not been to another coach’s youth practice since 1989. I was appalled.

    My impression is that the vast majority of youth coaches have no clue what they are doing. What they do appears to be a crude recreation of their high-school or college football program, only they forgot the nitty-gritty details. All they remember are the daily rituals like conditioning and drills. They mimic the way football coaches used to talk thirty years ago, spouting tough-guy clichés right and left. “Ya gotta stick yer nose in there!” or “Lay the wood on ’im!”

    They run conditioning drills whose main purpose appears to be to cause the players to feel pain and wish the drill was over. They run football-related drills heedless of whether any of their plays or defenses calls for the skill being practiced or whether the players have already mastered the skill in question. They run excruciatingly slow scrimmage periods where the team might run five plays in twenty minutes. They are blind to the fact that half their players do not know their blocking assignments and move on to the next play even though the last one was a disaster.

    At pre-season football camps, players often put on an end-of-camp skit in which they impersonate their various coaches. The typical youth-football practice truly bears more resemblance to such skits than it does to a well-coached high-school or higher level practice.

    If you have no training at football coaching, at least use common sense. Youth football starts with a play, not with conditioning or drills or fundamentals. Put in your first play first. Then, run it and see if it is going smoothly. If the center and quarterback fumble the snap, which they will, they need to step aside and practice that. If a handoff is being fumbled, the personnel in question must step aside and practice that. Set up a scout defense and walk through the play over and over until every single offensive player is absolutely sure whom he blocks against each potential defense. Finally, run it live against a scout defense and watch closely. When there is a breakdown, find out what caused it before you proceed. Fix that problem immediately. It may require a different player in a key position, or a drill to improve technique, or a change in the way the play is run. The main point is put in your play and perfect it before you move on to the second play or defense. That will force you to do some drills and other coaching. But only do the drills you are forced to do in order to make the particular play work. No way do you have time to do generic drills for no reason other than you did them when you were in high school.


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    • great article coach…i agree withveverything i just read

      jerry on

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