Lessons from a Youth Football Coach
By Coach Ronnie Atkinson
I’ve coached many youth sports over the past few years, but nothing near the magnitude of a tackle youth football team. I learned a few valuable lessons in year one that other rookie coaches could surely benefit from.
Lesson #3: Choose a coaching staff that is both supportive and trustworthy.
As mentioned in a previous post, my priorities for our youth football team are the following:
When choosing a coaching staff, I want assistant coaches that share these priorities. I also want coaches that provide different points of view and are not afraid to tell me when they feel I am making poor choices. I also need them to go with my final decisions, even if they are not in agreement.
As I mentioned in a previous lesson, we like the Gap, Air, Mirror (GAM) defense for our age group. In the GAM down linemen play the A and B gaps. Defensive Ends line up “On Air”. Secondary defenders “Mirror” receivers… or play Man-To-Man. I had decided that there was really no way for an 8 year old Quarterback to receive a shotgun snap and get a good pass off in under 3 seconds while seeing heavy pressure from our defense. I decided to heavily blitz our Inside Linebackers rather than have them cover the offense’s receivers. This goes against the base GAM assignments.
During a practice where we were installing the defense, one of my assistant coaches argued with me for about half an hour during practice. He said I was making a mistake by not having the Inside Linebackers cover the receivers. I said, “Trust me; I know what I am doing”. A couple of lessons to be learned here:
- Don’t waste valuable practice time arguing with other coaches. Do this away from the kids and outside of practice.
- Be open to other coach’s suggestions instead of immediately dismissing them.
Our first game of the season was against a team with tackle experience. Half of their team played for two years and the other half played one year. They ran a spread offense and with passing typically being unsound at this age and our fields being compressed, I assumed that they would be highly ineffective. I felt our heavy blitzes would get to the Quarterback before he could get any passes off. I was wrong. The first play of the game they attempted a jet sweep and we tackled them for a large loss. “Ha!” Our blitzing Inside Linebacker was the tackler. This means I must be right! Well, our Defensive End would have made the play if the Inside Linebacker hadn’t blitzed. The very next play we were beaten for a long touchdown pass as the Quarterback did get a pass off before our pressure got to him. I was stunned! I was eating crow for sure. I vowed to give more consideration to assistant coach’s suggestions and also to follow the GAM by the book, because had we done so we would have properly defended their receivers. We played the 2nd half of the game by the book and shut down their offense completely. We ended up finishing the game tied in our first tackle game ever against a very good and experienced team. Had I considered the concern my Assistant Coach had expressed earlier, we may have even won.
We played the same opponent again later in the season. I had been coaching our Inside Linebackers to jam the receivers at the line of scrimmage. This would buy us enough time to get pressure on the Quarterback. Two of my assistant coaches disagreed and said we should cover the receivers instead of jamming them. They both played college football and said that jamming cannot be done against a skilled receiver that is aligned in the slot and is off the line of scrimmage. My response was “right… in college, or even high school, but these are kids”. One of the assistants was the same coach that told me I shouldn’t blitz our Inside Linebackers and leave receivers uncovered. He was right about that, but I was sure he was wrong about this so I stuck to my guns.
Game time arrived and the first play of the game our opponent threw a long pass to a speedy receiver that landed right in his hands, but thankfully he dropped it. I emphasized to the Inside Linebacker that he was to jam that receiver and not to try and cover him. Next play was a jet sweep that our Defensive End stopped cold. Play three was another deep pass to the same receiver that dropped the earlier pass. Again he was wide open but this time he caught it for a touchdown. When our defense came off the field I asked the Inside Linebacker why he didn’t jam him like we had practiced. He said that his dad (one of the disagreeing Assistant Coaches) said not to… he was supposed to cover him. When I approached his dad, before I could even say a word he started laying into me that the receiver is too fast for his son to cover and we needed someone else on him. My response was “he shouldn’t have to cover him if he was jamming him instead.” After a slightly heated exchange, we both approached his son and said to jam him the rest of the game. Well, it worked. That kid never caught another pass that game. In fact, the next ball thrown to him was nowhere near him and was intercepted by our Safety.
Mission accomplished so I thought. Next time they had the ball, they threw to another receiver that was being covered by my other Inside Linebacker that happened to be the son of the other disagreeing Assistant Coach. He soon got beat for a touchdown. I asked why he wasn’t jamming the receiver and his response was the same… his dad told him to cover instead. I told him to jam or he would sit out the rest of the game. He did as I instructed and we shut down their passing game completely for the remainder of the game, but we ultimately ended up losing the game.
After the game, I had a major discussion with my Assistant Coaches. I explained that it was okay to disagree with me and that I made a mistake in the first game by not listening to their opinions, but that did not give them the right to undermine my decisions. I further explained that if they were unable to respectfully disagree and support my decisions, they were welcome to take their kids to another team.
Coach Atkinson coaches a 4th Grade team in Edmond, Oklahoma.
Lesson #4: Youth Football practice should be fun!