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New Coaches: Big Picture Lessons For Young Kids

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I came here 7 seasons ago and through my lurking I have learned a ton. There are better threads about the Xs and Os but this one is about the bigger picture lessons I have learned coaching K-2nd 5v5 Flag.

1. If You Want to Coach, Be the Coach.

If you know what kind of coach you want to be and your priorities are straight, don't let another Dad step on your toes. My son was five and I volunteered to coach his first flag football team. We started with a horribly run league, but I didn't know that then. We arrive at a pizza place, a lady stands up and in all of five minutes says "Let all the kids play. Don't curse or shout. Here's where you pick up your flags.". If this sounds like your league...get out next season (I'll explain why later). At the bottom of the folder I see that another Dad is listed as the assistant coach. I think this is great, because I am new and could use some help.

The guy ends up being a running back coach for the local high school and by the end of the first practice steam rolls his way to being the head coach. I could have pitched a fit, but at the time, he had a routine, he seemed to know how to get things moving and he talked like my High School coach so it felt like coaching to me. As the season went on however, he would reveal himself to be everything I do not like about coaching younger kids. He was a cool guy off the field and was likely a good high school coach, but 5-6 year olds were NOT his forte.

He played 5 out of our 10 kids 90% of the time. One of our grass pickers literally never got a down in 3 games. He had a curse filled altercation with the kid's Dad after one of the games when confronted by him. He tried to convince me and 3 other parents to lie about our best kids ages for the next season so they wouldn't go to the next division. His own kid, who was one of our best kids was in tears during half the practices. Our last game of the year he freaked out over a bad call a referee made stomping off to the league tent in the middle of the 2nd qrtr. I finally confronted him telling him to sit it out. He redzoned on me for a half a second where I thought I was about to have to fight a grown man in front of my kid. Then I explained to him he was hurting the team and he noticed the huddle of wide eyed kids behind me. He apologized to the team and admitted he just wasn't cut out for that age group at the end of the game. However, in the interest of not making waves, I let down my kid and all of the others who weren't playing or really even being coached that season.

I felt horrible for not standing up sooner. I thought that his solid game plan and well run practices trumped what I brought to the table. What I learned is, if there is something you want to coach your kids, then be the coach. Half of your parents will want to win at all costs, I have had some tell me to NOT play their kids. The other half want their kids to have fun. If you let them "help" you, you will not know until week 2 or 3 what kind of parent they are and by then, they are a coach too.

Even if you suck your first season. Suck using YOUR philosophy. YOUR plays and YOUR practices. If you have to coach with someone else, go out for a beer before week one and hash out your coaching styles. -

2. Don't Be "That Coach"

Don't be "That Coach" who has one superstar that you ride all year. The only thing you are proving is that you are good at figuring out which 5-8year old is faster than the rest. Because that is pretty much all it takes. If you want to prove how good of a coach you are, score a touchdown with your grass picker. Get him in the endzone. I can remember every time I got my slower "all heart and less skill" players in to the end zone because of the smiles on their face and their parents.

My third season we played for the championship against a team with a freakish athlete. They beat us 38 to 20 and he scored all their touchdowns and their extra points. He intercepted us twice and played every down of the game. Every down. One of my Dads tracking stats had them down for 22 offensive plays and this kid ran the ball 13 times and they threw to him 5 other times. What really got to me was a parent from his team after the game. He came over and shook my hand and said "I liked how you spread the ball around even when you were losing. My son hasn't touched it all year. Do you have any openings next season?". After that Dad talked to me, I realized just how crappy that coach is for his team. More than half his kids might not play football again because of how boring he made it. Just because they aren't Barry Sanders at age 6, they got snubbed by their own coach. The other kids may have grown to be- great linebackers or linemen or maybe they could have been good that year if coached up. Even if they were never going to be good at football, its exercise, team building and should be fun. "That Coach" won and his kid got to feel awesome for a couple seasons but he did at the expense of other children on his own team.

Please don't be "That Coach".

3. Find a Good League

The first league we tried was run out of some ladies house and she was using the league to pay her mortgage and boy did it show. One season we did not have flags for our first game and had to cancel and reschedule. The cost went up the following season,but the flags got cheap, medals and trophies went away and replaced with certificates. Some days we had 2 refs, other times 1 and never the same ones. One week we had a guy hard counting the 25 second clock (in a Kindergarten league mind you) the next we had guys letting a minute tick down. Applying for a coaching spot was clicking a check mark and getting a quick speech at the beginning of the year. When the field got rained out, you were notified with a sign at the field. None of these are horrible, but they add up, they irritate the parents, you as a coach and they will impact your ability to coach. Our final season someone broke in to the shed she kept all the gear in and she asked everyone to pay an additional 50 bucks for more jerseys which mysteriously showed up two days later, even though 3 seasons prior they were always a week or two behind shipping them. In short, it was shady, run poorly and parent irritation at the league spills on to you.

Contrast that with i9 and it is night and day. The refs and opposing coaches have your play time rotation so that every kid gets in every game. Their website alone will save you a ton of work as a coach. I have always had two refs, usually one of four whom I know how they call the game and can adjust accordingly. They robo call you and your team first thing in the morning when weather cancels a game too. They give you medals to had out each week to a kid for a sportsmanship award, which is a great way to motivate the kids who don't score or get the game winning flag pull.

A good league eliminates most of the stuff you can't control as a coach, leaving you to worry about your team and your team alone.

4. Set Your Practice Days and Location on Day One

When you first contact parents have a brief statement about what kind of coach you intend to be, let them know your practice times and location and then ask them if this will work for them. If you say to a group "Where should we practice?" like I did once, you will have a parent who instantly chooses a time and place convenient for them. Another parent will resent that and put forward one that works for them. None of them are committing as much time as you, so don't feel bad for laying claim to a time and location convenient for you. If some parent has a hard conflict they will let you know and if enough do, then reschedule the time or location at that point. Look around and pick a central location to the team prior to talking to them. Try to pick a field that has access to lights and a bathroom. During the fall, the spots just outside the outfield of softball or baseball leagues are lit up and great finds. If you find one with a nearby play structure for the siblings, jackpot.

5. Get Parents Involved Right Away.

If you wait to get parents involved they will assume you don't want them or don't need them. If you ask for volunteers without specific roles, they may be afraid you are asking for more than you are and decline, or worse, assume you don't know what you are doing and insert themselves.

On the first practice, pass your roster around and tell them you've assigned snack for each week in the order on the roster and let them swap dates amongst themselves. Ask for one or two Dads to track stats so that you can make sure the playing time and touches are as fair as possible (Do not attempt to track stats yourself). Ask if a parent wants to volunteer to organize getting names on jerseys silk screened or to plan an end of season party. Some parents will leap at the chance, others will run away, but it puts some of the success of the season on their shoulders not just yours. If you asked for someone to step up, they can't blame you when it doesn't get done.

If you bring parents on to the field, have a specific job for them. Put them in a box until you know them. Place them by your corners and have them coach up containment during runs and how to play the pass. Have another work on your blitzers. Have another focus on "alligator arms" for proper hand offs. If you just say "Help me on defense", congrats you have a new defensive coordinator who could end up being "That Guy".

6. Have a Parent Track Stats

I love stats as they help you on several levels. Stats help motivate kids, inform the parents and keep honest as a coach. Many parents watch only their kids and not the whole team during the games and have tunnel vision because of it. The parents who have the super star athletes love seeing how well their kid is doing. Seeing one kid with 7 touches week three and another with 0 will wake up your coaching as well. Seeing that one kid scores 75% of the time he gets it, will make the parent of a kid with 4 touches and 0 scores understand why his kid isn't leading getting more. On the stat sheets I always include a few stats like Hustle, Hurries, Sportsmanship, Swarming which I use to quickly pad a few of the under performing kids stats. I still let the stars stand out, but you should always have something to praise at this age.

One season stats revealed that one kid was our best receiver during the games but I didn't see it until I saw the paper. Seeing your kids with 0 flag pulls lets you know who needs work. The best part is, if other parents are tracking the stats, parents can't blame you for unequal praise.

Each season I grab some images from Google to match our team name then print out a half sheet of paper with the logo and their name and laminate it. Then at the end of the game I give out stickers for the tally marks on the stat sheets. The idea being like the college and high school teams that put the stickers on their helmet. Its a pain but the kids eat it up and I have yet to have even my worst grass picker be bummed out because he doesn't have the number of stickers our stars do. These kids know the star player earned them, but I stress the team aspect and that make sure even the worst player has a few to be proud of.

7. Define Your Standards and Punishments On Day One

The sooner you define your standards, the sooner they will meet them. No talking in the huddle. How to address you or other coaches. Taking a knee when addressing them. No horsing around during water breaks. No flag pulling while in lines or huddles. Figure out what will happen when they break these rules and be consistent. Consistent. Consistent. My punishment is running around a backstop about 100 feet away. Some coaches do pushups or sprints. Keep in mind these are boys who spent all day not moving at school, so don't be a drill sergeant, but if practice is being interrupted, have a quick punishment that gives the kid a few seconds to feel a little embarrassed but not shamed. Also try to say why they are in trouble loud enough for the parents to hear. Only the worst parents will have a problem with you equitably and humanely disciplining their kid. Some parents sign their kids up specifically to get some discipline. None of them signed up to hear a grown man humiliate, scream at or berate their child.

8: Keep Your First Practices Basic

When coaching young kids you will always have kids who are new to the sport. Some who have played, will forget half of what they learned or your terminology may be different than their last coach. Define Offense and Defense. Make sure they can all snap the ball properly. Tell them what the Endzone and line of scrimmage is. Show them alligator arms for hand offs. Walkthrough a proper throwing motion. Make sure they can all snap the ball properly. I said that last one twice because it will break your soul when some kid gets over the ball and says hike himself and long snaps it in to the end zone on week three.

Also make sure you update your terminology. I spent an entire season saying "Carry the football like a loaf of bread". Week 7 I saw a blank look and asked who knew what a "loaf" was. None of them could. Facepalm Coach.

9: Practice Plays Not Drills

From age 5-9 I would stress that almost 100% of your practice time needs to be spent running plays or drills that simulate pieces of plays you need to work on. If you can have a full defense against a full offense, do it. If not, short the defense one week, offense the next. The reason is that if concepts like containment, or pressure on the QB or the value of a good fake can not be explained to most kids this age ESPECIALLY if they are new to football. They need to be burnt around the corner, see their good QB put up a rainbow pick with a blitzer coming in or get caught standing still with a good fake before they get it.

The most I would do with drills are sprints, not for conditioning (you will never have enough time at this age for conditioning) but to teach technique and I use a ball and a hard count to teach reaction at snap. I have a snap, then hand off and run between a gauntlet of defenders to focus snaps, hand offs and flag pulling. Then mix it up with a pass and run through defenders.

10: Run First. Pass Second

Until you hit 3rd and 4th grade a consistent passing game is a vaguely close promise land that all coaches and virtually every parent, believe is just over the horizon. Don't get me wrong, you need to pass or those No Run zones will murder your team. I am simply saying that you need to get your running game going first. In 7 seasons I had a freakish QB in two seasons, but only one kid could catch his balls. One season I had four who could catch but the only kid who could throw would only throw to the person I said to watch for, regardless of how covered he was. Even smart QBs just huck the ball in the air when blitzed effectively. Work on your running game, get a few easily completed short passes to the flats and over the middle (depending on where their defense's holes are) and save the bombs. Now if you have a QB and 2-3 who can catch and run smart routes, you're going to be first or second in your league because everyone else is running and opposing defenses will not be sucking up every play.

Around age 9 and 10 the kids get disciplined on Defense and running starts to get hard, but this is because they are starting to grasp big picture concepts. This is when they are able to really grasp route running versus just doing what is on the wipe board regardless of where the defender is.

11. Coach Football

Maybe this should have been number one, but you are a football coach, so coach football. Just because you devised a wacky rule bending play that works, doesn't mean you're coaching good football. By 3rd - 4th grade, your muddle huddle or not having a WR report to the huddle will get crushed hard. All the time your team spent practicing it, is keeping them from learning real football plays and skills. Statue of Liberty, Hook and Ladder or a Flea Flicker are not the type of plays I am talking about here.

If you're designing a play to trick 5-8 year olds, remember that tricking them is not difficult. The target of your trickery are people who believe that fairies pay them for old teeth. Be a good coach and practice good football they can learn from.

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Great post with great advise for new coaches and coaches of younger players. I think the only thing I might add would be to have a parents meeting before the start of the first practice and layout your philosophy and expectations to the parents so that if and when problems arise the parents know where you stand.

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Thanks! Rob, your replies and posts helped crystalize my approach to do a few things well, vs mediocre at a lot. I've been lurking here since my second season and have learned a lot and figured It was time to give a little back. I have two seasons left before I am no longer allowed on the field with them and will have to learn how to coach from the side lines and am realizing how different the young kid game can be. Especially for new coaches.

I think my favorite part of coaching kids is how much I learn each season. The kid I wrote off week one, becoming a solid player in week 5 or the brilliant play on paper that never gains a yard. However you don't start seeing these until you're no longer making up practice on the fly, or changing your offense around every time you get thumped. The sooner you get comfortable, the more fun it gets.

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I wrote this article for another website a few years ago and felt it was relevant to this discussion.

Having coached youth sports for the last 10 years I have seen all kinds of coaches - good and bad. Who am I to pass judgment on their abilities? I am certainly not the best coach in the world and I will freely admit that I have picked up many an idea from other coaches. As with all coaches and people in general, I do the best that I can with the talent that God gave me. I have my own agenda good or bad and I move forward, sometimes with great results and sometimes with embarrassing results. But in the end, they still call me coach.

We talk so much about winning and losing, but is that really all there is to sports? In any competition there is always a measurable outcome - winner and loser. Let's be honest here, we are all competitive creatures, we compete for jobs, grades, our own beloved professional sports teams, in our homes and on our highways. But, is winning and losing all there is to youth sports? If we can't win should we even bother to play? I for one have missed that simple point for along time - without a loser there could not be a winner! That is to say, without a loser we could not experience that wonderful moment - that thrilling moment of knowing you did your best and your best was better than anyone else's. That's why we play and coach the games - for those few moments when everything comes together and we know that we have given it our best. It is through hardships, through overcoming obstacles, through enduring despite difficulties that make winning so enjoyable. Isn't this what builds character? Isn't that exactly what we want to instill in our youth?

I started off in youth coaching as an assistant coach on my daughter's softball team. I played sports throughout high school so I thought I had a pretty good understanding of the various fundamentals of the sports my children were playing. I didn't like being an assistant coach and I thought I could do better and that I knew more than the head coach. It wasn't that he was doing a bad job, I just thought I could do things better. I didn't complain and talk bad about the head coach, I just decided that I wasn't just going to be an assistant coach any longer; I was going to be the head coach.

You may be thinking by now, that I am not a very good person. You would probably be right. For as the prophet Isaiah said, "Our good deeds are stained with self-interest and our demands for justice are mixed with lust for vengeance." So, I won't lie and say that the reason that I started coaching youth sports was all about the kids and giving back to the community. My selfish reasons for coaching have changed dramatically over the years, from wanting to show that I am a better coach to understanding that the kids have much more to teach me than I could ever hope to teach them.

So, what does it take to be a successful coach?

First and foremost I have come to the conclusion that you have to be strong. You have to be strong in your commitment to fundamentals and your responsibility to the team as a whole. As a coach you have a responsibility to yourself, your own child, the entire organization, all the players on the team and their parents. You have a responsibility to make sure that all of your players learn the fundamentals of the game and get opportunities to develop those fundamentals. You will have parents that will sell-out their own children so that they can be a part of a winning team. You will have parents who will be upset because they think there child is the star and is not being treated as the star. You will have parents who don't understand that their child has a commitment to the team to show up for practice everyday and on time. You will have parents who will want to educate you on how to coach the team or their own child. You will have parents who think it's all about fun and socializing. You will have parents who think it's all about winning. In essence you will have a little bit of everything thrown at you. If you're not strong and committed to your principles you won't have a team you will have a group of individuals who get together a couple of times a week and play a sport.

You have to be a great communicator. You have to be willing to communicate up front with your players and their parents and let them know what you stand for, what is expected of them and what is expected of the team and then stick with it. Zero tolerance! This sounds harsh but in all fairness you have a big responsibility. If you are willing to take on this responsibility it is only reasonable that you can expect your player's and their parents to keep their end of the bargain. You still need to be willing to listen to your players and their parents and keep an open mind about their concerns. Encourage your players to speak directly with you, let the parents know that they can help their child take responsibility by talking directly to the coach, not having their parent talk for them.

You must have a positive attitude and coach accordingly. When I first became a youth coach I was pretty confident in my knowledge and understanding of coaching. (How little I knew). I tried to coach as I had been coached. I yelled and screamed at my young players and demanded perfection. I have slowly learned that being positive works much better than screaming. When I quit looking for the negative and started looking for the positive in my players and started communicating with them about the positive parts of their games, I was amazed at the change in effort and confidence that I began to see. Now, don't get me wrong, there are still times when I have to give negative feedback because you have to keep it honest, but I make sure that I give more positives than negatives when providing feedback to my players. Your attitude is the key to getting your player's and their parents to follow your principles and philosophy. When everything else is equal or if there is any doubt, will you as a coach not pick the player with the better attitude? As a player would you not work harder for a coach with a great attitude?

You must be willing to learn new techniques and study the game to become a better coach. Let's face it, at all levels there is always someone out there who is a better athlete, better coach, better whatever. Don't be afraid to ask questions and learn from someone else. As a coach, no matter how long you have been at it, you will always make mistakes, learn from your mistakes. Don't get caught up in winning and losing. This is a part of athletics, but it's not the central focus. Don't get me wrong here; I am not one of those people who are going to try to convince you that competition is bad for our young people. What I am saying is that you could be the best coach in the world, if you don't have the athletes you aren't going to win, because you don't play the game. Keep the focus on learning the fundamentals and playing together as a team. You don't accomplish this by giving your less accomplished athletes less and less opportunities. Yes, at the club level and the high school and college level this is how it works, but don't give up on an 8 year old because he/she doesn't yet have the skills and abilities that some teammates may already possess.

You need to be organized and focused. You need to know exactly what you want to accomplish before you ever get to the field or gym. You should know what skills you are going to work on and for how long. Delegate some of the responsibility to your assistant coaches, if you have communicated well what you want to accomplish, your assistants can run the drills without you standing over their shoulders. This will allow you to accomplish much more in a shorter period of time.

You must be the first to demonstrate good sportsmanship. Honor the game with integrity. Respect the rules, opponents, officials and traditions of the game. Keep a low profile during the game and allow the kids to be the center of attention.

Finally, focus on defense and fundamentals. Don't get caught up in focusing on a couple of better than average players and having everything revolve around the exceptional talent that you may find. Work on fundamentals with all of your players and teach them good solid defensive principles. Offense may be fun and exciting, but defense will win you games and anyone can be taught to play good defense pretty quickly.

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