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 #1: Youth Football is for the kids, NOT for the coach to collect trophies.
I decided I wasn’t going to be like other youth coaches I had observed over the years. Youth sports are meant to develop young kids and to foster an interest in sports. They are not meant to drive away inexperienced or uncoordinated kids for the sake of winning trophies.
I must preface with a little background…
I sat back and “armchair coached” as my oldest son participated in various sports with mostly bad coaches. My son is an above average athlete, but not a super stud by any means. His first experience with youth football was on a team with a coach that wanted to win at any cost. And they did win. They went undefeated.
They went undefeated mostly because their coach recruited kids in a very unethical way. He hung out in the league office during signups and as athletic looking kids in his team’s age division signed up he would invite them to play on his team. If they showed up at a practice and played well, he welcomed them to the team. If they didn’t, he said “sorry, the team is full” and sent them on their way.
The coach categorized kids as “skilled” (QBs, RBs, WRs, TEs) or “unskilled” players. These were terms that the “unskilled” players did not appreciate. The “skilled” players practiced more because “they had more to learn”. Luckily my son was good enough to be categorized as one of the “skilled” players.
I was happy that my son was a “skilled” player on an undefeated team. However as I watched the faces of some of the kids that were not lumped into the “skilled” category, I could tell they were not enjoying themselves. I also watched as the coach yelled at the players during practice as if he was a drill sergeant. These kids were 6 and 7 years old and would freeze up when they were yelled at. Not a good environment.
As the season progressed, I noticed that although we were winning, many of the kids were not having fun. About mid-season, a majority of the kids were not playing to their full potential. They are kids and when kids are not having fun, they do not go all out. Yelling at them only makes it worse. One game, when the score was closer than the coach liked, he physically slapped one of the kids on the back of the helmet (extremely violently and hard). I decided right then and there that we would not return next season. During the last few games of the season, the coach was ejected for cursing at a referee… twice. The season couldn’t end soon enough.
The next season we played for a different coach. This coach was an experienced middle school coach. There was no way he would be worse than the “drill sergeant”. And he wasn’t. But he was not ideal, either. While he was not a trophy hunting coach, he was not a youth coach either. Middle school aged kids are much different from 7 and 8 year olds. This coach ran several Middle School tackling drills that made the top two or three kids a little bit better, but made all of the other kids timid. The result: One win in two seasons.
After two years of this, we moved to another team. This team had chemistry and comradery among the players. The coach was very positive. Every kid on the team was a starter and they all had sound technique. This team played in the finals, but lost the championship. The kids were disappointed of course, but they had a blast! Also, most of the kids on this team would ultimately play through to the High School level.
After enduring these trials and tribulations with my oldest son, I decided I wasn’t going to allow my younger son to have the same experience. I decided I would coach as many of his teams as possible. I would foster an environment where all of the kids on the teams would learn the sport and have fun playing. I stuck to this philosophy with t-ball, baseball, soccer, basketball, and flag football. Through all of these sports I watched as my son and his teammates had fun and learned to love sports. As a result of having fun, they all played hard. For nearly every single season we were one of the top teams and I knew very little about any of these sports.
I played football and I know football so I was more than ready once the season arrived.
Coach Atkinson coaches a 4th Grade team in Edmond, Oklahoma.