A few years back I had the opportunity to be the head football coach of a Freshman team. As a young head coach I was pretty pumped with the opportunity to mold my team into something that was going to be incredible and prove to others how great a coach I was.
That year we had a large enough team to fill all the positions on both sides of the ball with decent players. I also had an assistant coach who was able to fully take over our defensive game planning allowing me to focus solely on offense.
I had just enough knowledge at that time to make myself dangerous so early in the season I already had a good bank of plays we ran quite well. I felt we could step it up a notch and really give defenses some trouble by going hurry-up no huddle.
So we put some plays in as one word play calls and were ready to try it out on our next opponent!
Little did I know what was going to happen.
When they rolled off the bus my first thought was…oh my, they are big and there sure are a lot of them!
But boy was I wrong. In our first two possessions we scored in only 3 to 4 plays per drive.
What I didn’t know at that time was that at the younger levels of football, teams that can execute at a no huddle tempo have a huge advantage over opposing defenses.
Defenses are not at all prepared to handle that kind of up-tempo attack, especially without any kind of preparation or film study, which is pretty much guaranteed to not be possible at that level.
But did I stop? Foolishly no. We were up by almost 50 at half-time.
The entire second half was me trying to save face.
Never have I had a worse time shaking a coaches hand at the end of the game.
So, what’s the point of this story?
Was the tactic I used (hurry-up no huddle) smart coaching?
Sure, it worked. It worked really well. We won the game by a lot…
But was it a smart tactic for a youth or lower level football coach who claims to be passionate about the development of players?
Once upon a time, I would have said yes because I didn’t know any better. And a lot of current coaches would agree with me.
Now that I’m more experienced, I would say an emphatic no.
But this tactic (and many other similar tactics) are used on a regular basis in today’s youth football.
Think about this…
What was I depriving my team of when I forced them to keep going hurry up no huddle?
Here are just a few things…
• They don’t get a chance to practice blocking against a prepared defender.
• They don’t get to practice their blocking schemes because the defense never really gets lined up.
• They don’t get to experience how to stick with a series of offensive plays and drive down the field and get a rhythm going.
• They don’t get to practice a variety of play-calls all from which they can learn to execute better.
I was hurting the entire team’s development because I wanted to win the game more than I wanted them to get better.
Sorry, guys. If I could go back and change how I coached that game, I would. Even if it meant we lost the game.
Which brings me to the main point of this article…
Many of the tactics that win youth football games are detrimental to the long-term development of our athletes.
These tactics are most commonly used by coaches who aren’t aware of the consequences or coaches that are only concerned about stroking their own ego and winning games.
Here they are…
(Please don’t use them)
Terrible Tactic #1: Play Your 11 Best Players as Much as Possible
I have been guilty of this one early on in my coaching career, but especially with youth football, only playing those top 11 players and no one else is a big sign of a coach who only wants to win.
When they get to Varsity High School…I totally agree, the best players play.
But in youth football, when you have the coach who basically takes the stars and then plays them offense and defense all the way (except for a few spots on special teams), all those other players never get a chance to even begin to develop their abilities.
They might get a little chance when they have to rest up the starters who are so fatigued to the point they can’t possibly play any more.
Once they have the score run up on much weaker opponents, then they can take the “risk” of finally putting in a weaker player to rest him up a few plays until he can go back in.
What you should do instead:
Every youth football coach should strive to give all of their players even time on the field. NOTE: I didn’t say they get to pick where they play all the time. But remember, kids notice every little thing you do and if you never share the opportunities, resentment starts building even if you don’t see it.
There is no substitute for in-game experience when developing football players.
For me, I will have starters and a clear rotation at each position so that every player gets an opportunity to develop when I coach the youth levels. I will only deviate from even time until the last drive or defensive stand of a close game, then I’ll put in the players who I believe give us the best chance of winning the game.
But up until that point, everyone should be receiving an even amount of playing time whether you’re winning or losing.
Terrible Tactic #2: Run an all out blitzing attack and force the offense to be completely one dimensional.
This is the most common defensive tactic used by coaches that aren’t concerned with the development of their players.
Most youth teams don’t have the luxury of multiple Wide receivers and a gun-slinging and elite running QB.
And even fewer teams can actually block against a “kitchen sink” blitz package.
So you call the blitz every time and either their RB gets stuffed or the QB gets sacked and the fans go nuts about how great their defense is.
Only problem is actual defense has little to do with it. Defenders are not at all learning to read their keys and play with proper defensive technique!
And instead it becomes a ridiculous battle of the “Jimmies and Joes” again with one (early maturing) top athlete pitted against another just trying to outrun each other.
And since most youth players aren’t physically strong or accurate enough to pass the ball dropping back from the gun to all over the field, coaches take advantage of this by playing man coverage on the perimeter and packing everyone else in the box.
When a coach does this, they’re depriving their players of the opportunity to practice block destruction, reading their keys, pursuing the football, playing pass coverage, learning zone passing principles, etc.
Running an all out blitzing defense isn’t “smart football” like a lot of youth coaches seem to think it is.
What you should do instead:
I believe all youth football teams should be playing a modern defense that balances numbers inside and outside the box like upper level teams are forced to do.
I don’t mind teams running the 50 defense or 4-4 or whatever you call it, but they need to teach proper adjustments to spread formations. You should know better then to keep all 8 guys in the box against a spread 2 x 2 or 3 x 1 formation. No defensive coordinator in their right mind can run that way against a legitimate spread team in HS ball and not get killed with screens and the quick passing game.
Plus, a secondary that only knows how to man up is depriving all those DB’s of learning from the many Zone defenses that are critical to learn and execute at the next levels of football.
If you don’t know how to run a legitimate defense, go to my good friend Joe Daniel here and learn his 4-2-5. Not only will you be a better coach for it, but your players will also be far more prepared for the next level.
Terrible Tactic #3: Go hurry-up no huddle ALL GAME LONG.
When I first started running hurry up no huddle at the lower level of football, I couldn’t stop myself from the excitement knowing that there was no way the defense could line up in time or have a prayer of a chance of stopping us from running even our base offense at full speed.
The reason I’ve decided against this strategy might seem odd to a lot of coaches out there…
…because it’s too effective. Hurry-up no huddle flat-out works in youth football.
Here’s why it works and how it’s hindering the development of our players.
Youth football players are just beginning to grasp the game.
To effectively stop a hurry up no huddle offense you have to know what you are doing and get ready quickly to read the play and get off blocks to make the tackle or cover the WRs.
Since youth players often lack this football IQ, the offense doesn’t have to worry about defenses being ready for it and they can simply run the plays without needing much blocking up front.
This inevitably leads to a lot of easy scores and the game turns into a blow out and just discourages defensive players from trying to understand what is going on.
I see it now and wish I could have taken that game back. We ended up really having to try to speed up the game to save face from embarrassing the other team, which is still embarrassing because it mean putting the ball in the hands of guys who had no business ever carrying the football. (ouch and more ouch)
EDITORS NOTE: I got some criticism on this point and I do agree that playing against a worthy opponent, this can be an acceptable strategy. I even strongly advocate practicing no-huddle so that you can speed up your practice reps and get more players good reps (provided that they know what to do!)
But going Hurry-Up No Huddle in games often not a good thing for youth football development.
What you should do instead:
Same point as the last tactic…
Your team should play a base tempo and use huddling to get everybody on the same page and give defenses half a chance to line up correctly.
This allows the opposition to be set and ready for the play and then the offensive team and defensive team can work on running and passing fundamentals which are much more important for development.
Terrible Tactic #4: Tell Your Players They Shouldn’t Play Multiple Sports
This one hits close to home to me for multiple reasons.
First, when you look at all the recruited football athletes in top D1 programs, a very high percentage of them played multiple sports. (Track, Baseball, Wrestling, Basketball, etc.)
So if a coach ever tells you that you need to do that, run away as fast as you can. They probably have their pocketbook in mind far more then your child or they just want to get the good athletes to commit 100% to their sport.
They think it leads to more wins and may even tell parents their child will get left behind and not be able to catch up.
Not only is this wrong, it has been proven time and time again.
I guarantee that an athlete that spends his time with a trainer in a weight room or doing off-season drills will not come close to achieving the potential he could have achieved had he joined another sport and truly dedicated himself to his development as a total athlete. Not to mention in football you have the entire summer to dedicate to getting ready for football season!
You also miss out on competition, being coached as part of a team, developing your athleticism in a complimentary way and most of all camaraderie.
What you should do instead:
Stop telling your kids to just do it because it will make them better at football. No coach in their right mind wants a player to join their team to get better at another sport. Instead, tell them to go expand their interests and find ways to compete everywhere and most of all, have fun.
Playing another sport helps them develop into a better all-around athlete as well as will give them a chance to decide which is their favorite.
I was a basketball junkie in H.S. but it just didn’t work out. Had I not also played football and ran track I would have never had the incredible joy of playing collegiate football and then later on now in life loving my opportunity to coach both football and track.
Terrible Tactic #5: Put the fear of God into Young Referees so That They’re Afraid Make Calls Against Your Team
Another way to immediately know if a coach has their values and priorities in order is if they scream and yell at young referees.
Not only that…just look at the example you are setting!
If you didn’t know it, being a referee is not an easy job.
It’s much easier to help out a coach you are intimidated by as a referee then to call the game honestly.
In College summers, I was a baseball umpire to earn a few extra bucks. Most coaches were pretty cool but there were a few who just made the job miserable. Not only was it hard to keep calling it fair, but it made me second guess myself and I wasn’t as focused on calling the game well.
If you have to do this to get a few calls all game you’re just sinking to a level that doesn’t help the game or your players very much.
PLUS, now the players think every call should go their way and lose respect for the integrity of the game as well.
What you should do instead:
Stop talking to the referees and focus on the team you’re coaching.
You are not a perfect coach and your players aren’t perfect blockers and tacklers. So why do you expect the referees to be perfect.
Terrible Tactic #6: Only Allow the Best Players to Run the Ball or play close to the Line of Scrimmage.
Youth coaches that only care about winning only want the football in the hands of their best players or their best players nearest the football at all times.
It’s common to see these coaches also instructing the weaker players on the team to just stay deep on defense while the better players on the team get to play up tight.
On offense, when the weaker players do receive the football, they’re often yelled at to just keep both hands on the ball and not to fumble.
How are these weaker defensive players going to improve if all they’re allowed to do is jog backwards every play and never come up to attempt a tackle. Or if they never get a chance to run the ball?
What you should do instead:
Encourage your weaker players to a make the correct football play even if they are outmatched. At the very least they can force players one direction or another.
Another tactic I use is when our team is winning by a comfortable margin, I get the players that don’t usually carry the ball more opportunities.
Terrible Tactic #7: Force Your Biggest, Strongest and Fastest Players to Only Play the Key Skill Positions.
The best players on your team are required to play QB or RB, right?
Coaches instruct these players to be only in these key roles. You want to win right?
Their role involves running and throwing the ball only right? Nothing else. “Because we can’t have anybody else do it.”
So in practice all they do is run and throw also.
Coaching youth football like this has to stop.
One of the main reasons is that when these “bigger” (or just early maturing) players advance to the next level and are no longer the biggest, baddest and fastest, now they get thrown into a role they have never learned or played.
Moreover, they think football is all about just them getting the ball and they usually end up not getting the complete picture about football and being selfish players.
Don’t restrict a player in the future or teach them football is only about running and passing and catching when we all know it’s about running, blocking, and tackling. You just don’t know how they are going to grow and develop in the future.
What you should do instead:
Create multiposition players.
I made the mistake early on of locking players into certain positions and it’s one I won’t make again. From day one I talk to kids about playing multiple positions. It makes them better players all around. And sometimes I’m even surprised at the results! Who knew that kid could iso block like that? Or who knew this other one had a knack for getting off blocks!
Plus doing it from day one keeps the ego of the position out of their heads. Everybody has to learn to block and tackle. Even on the line everybody learns both sides of the ball and multiple positions. Sometimes this has saved games for me when I have to go to Center or QB #3!
Worried about the numbers on the jersey? Just bring an extra lineman or eligible # jersey to swap….if the officials are super picky about it!
Terrible Tactic #8: Tell your QB who to throw it to every time or whether to keep, give or pitch the FB.
Another sign of an inexperienced coach or a coach who’s focused on winning is the amount of time they set up plays that don’t allow the QB to make a decision on the field.
“Why is this so bad?” you might be asking…
Because they give your QB a pass from thinking and making decisions.
Instead, your QB’s already know where they should pass the football and whether to keep, give or pitch it.
By telling your QB what to do on these plays, you rob your players of the opportunity to make decisions and develop their football IQ by learning from experience.
What you should do instead:
Use a football offense that gives the players the opportunity to make decisions.
My favorite youth football offense is any offense that has a good combination of running, passing, and some option.
The future of modern football today is all about making decisions in the flow of the game after the snap. That’s why football is dominated by Option and RPO’s.
Remember the Run and Shoot? It is all based on decisions after the snap.
Teach pass plays with a full progression. Teach them how to make decisions and discuss why they made the decision they did.
I am tired of seeing hotshot freshman QB’s show up who have never made a simple flat read in their playing career before and trying to reteach them to follow a progression and read green grass.
Or they think progression is a joke because all they look for is the guy they think gives them the least chance to get intercepted.
Let’s recap the 8 most common ‘terrible tactics’ youth football coaches make:
- They play their 11 best players as much as possible.
- They blitz all the time and don’t teach zone coverages.
- They go hurry-up no huddle all game long.
- They tell players they shouldn’t play multiple sports.
- They put the fear of God into young referees.
- They only let the best players run the ball or play up close defensively.
- They don’t teach kids to play multiple positions and do more things on the field.
- They don’t let their players make decisions on the field.
The most important thing to know is that you’re not a bad coach if you’re currently using any of the 8 tactics above.
Pretty much all coaches have been guilty of at least one of these over their coaching career.
I know I’ve (unfortunately) used nearly all of the above tactics at some stage in my coaching journey.
If you feel guilty and that this wasn’t your intention, stop. I know it wasn’t mine most of the time because it is very difficult sometimes to put the future of all the players best interests in mind.
If something came to light in this article that helps you grow as a coach, then I will be satisfied to have spent the time writing it. (Even if I catch flak for putting it out there).
Let’s all remember what’s most important about youth football. Let’s teach our kids to play hard, play together and most of all “Have Fun”!
Are there any other terrible tactics that I have missed? Leave them in the comments!