Taking Responsibility and Teaching Responsibility as Youth Football Coach

Youth Coaches are in a unique position to teach their players and even their fellow coaches about taking responsibility. Many youth football teams have to deal with a number of team dynamics; the parents, the kids, the assistant coaches, the referees and even the coaches for the opposing team. In my mind the most important and the most impressionable dynamic is the player group. Adults already have their world view set, but most kids are in the process of developing theirs and often they just copy what they see from others they respect. This means as a youth football coach you have an enormous responsibility to be a man of integrity.

Unfortunately our world has shifted to a blame others society. It seems like anytime anything goes wrong, we want to blame others for the problem, no one is ever at fault for anything. Criminals are never at fault, it had to do with their environment and childhood. Our society even has a booming blame others economy with lawyers at the ready to sue companies with deep pockets for our own ineptness. Just think of the elderly lady that spilled hot coffee on her lap in a moving car and won millions or the man that ate petroleum jelly and got sick because the jar didn’t say “not edible”. Our society has become a world of excuse makers and some football coaches are right there arm-in-arm with them.

When a football team loses, we hear a litany of excuses from coaches, it was the referees fault, the players fault, the weathers fault, we were missing players, the other team cheated, we have no size, we have no speed, we have no athletes, our kids won’t hit, our kids aren’t aggressive, the other team got lucky, our kids didn’t make plays, we are just trying to have fun, we don’t have enough players, the kids didn’t “want” it, we didn’t execute, we practice less than the other team, etc etc etc. Many of the excuses I hear border on the bizarre and should be in the National Enquirer, but in the end are nothing more than “the dog ate my homework”. Many football coaches are some of the biggest excuse makers out there and that includes many paid High School coaches. I often wonder why the losing coach has all these problems, when the weather is real bad for his team, is his opponent playing on a different field with different weather? Doesn’t the opponent have kids that are ill or out too or does that ONLY happen with his team?

In 2005 we beat a team that had not lost in 5 years, their excuse was one of their kids was ill. In that game I started my 4th string tailback, my first teamer broke his arm in game 5, my second teamer banged up his knee in game 10. The night before the big game, our 3rd teamer was swimming at the hotel pool, slipped on the wet tile and pulled his groin. Our 4th teamer had played little at tailback and was our starting right guard. He knew our base 6 plays and that morning we got 6 more in that morning in the hotel lobby.

During the game our usually heavy tailback attack was limited to 4-5 carries and limited our passing and counter game. I didn’t bother to tell the other coach our best 3 players didn’t play. The funny thing was we had them under “mercy rule” in the second quarter, but you know how excuse makers are. In 2002 we played a local team and had them down 44-0 in the 3rd quarter, after the game they were real clear that they were missing #54 and with him there at linebacker it would have been “a totally different game”. In youth football it seems some losing coaches are either delusional or really are clueless about the impact of a single player. In youth football we all have nearly identical constraints and struggle with the same problems. We all have missing players, we all have ill player, we all have injured players. What message does that send to your team when they hear that kind of talk? They learn that football is a one player game and if you lose, to make excuses.

While it may be true that your team lacks size or lacks speed or you have half the number of players as your opposition, it is the coaches job to choose schemes and strategies to lessen those advantages. If a coach claims to have all the above problems yet chooses to run the same offense and defense everyone else in his league is running, he has no chance to compete. He is choosing by his own free will not to field teams that will compete.

If everyone runs basically the same thing (most do) the team with the best players is going to come out on top every week. Since the coach makes the decision which scheme to run and which methods used to implement it, he is responsible for the results the scheme that he chose produced. I don’t think there is a rule in any league that you MUST run offense X, it is the coaches free choice. I don’t think there is a masked man in the coaches office holding someone hostage with a gun to his head that if coach doesn’t run X offence that the hostage will be shot. The scheme is the coaches choice, hence he bears responsibility for making a good choice there or a poor one. Not all schemes and practice methods are created equal, some work much better for a particular group and others for other groups. The key is to choose which is best for the group you have or how we did it, for the grouping of kids we USUALLY got.

There are a number of schemes and methods one can use if you are in a situation where you have no size or speed. Competing one on one with a similar scheme as your opponent may not be the best choice, yet it is what we most often see in youth football. Why not choose a system that does not require lots of one-on-one blocking or a tremendous amount of speed? Why not choose system that doesn’t rely on big playmakers? Why not choose a system that eats up the clock and keeps your slow and small defense off the field? The reason why not is because many coaches are too close minded about moving on to something new or refuse to put in the time to learn how to run something different than what they have run in the past. But that choice is their decision and their responsibility.

Now I’m not saying you can take any group of players and make them a 10-0 team, I am saying each team has it’s own unique potential range. The problem is very few teams ever play to the top of their potential range. I have 10-12 teams in my organization that plays in a league with 60+ teams. Each year I assign a potential based on a quick look at the talent levels of the team they often look like this: 4-6 to 7-3, 2-8 to 5-5, 8-2 to 10-0. they are ranges of potential that particular team has. Our best coached teams almost always play to or above the potential and our worst coached teams play to the bottom of the potential range, regardless of the age group or the team they are assigned.

My first youth football coaching position was coaching in a league with a “blind” draft. You chose players based on two factors, his birthdate and weight. You didn’t know the players name or anything else; pretty blind draw for the most part. One would think that would create a very even playing field, yet one team, the Dolphins either won the League every year or finished second. How could this team get so “lucky’ every year if we all had the same talent levels due to the blind draft? Interestingly enough my last year in that league the Dolphins coaching staff moved on to other interests and the new coaches failed miserably, finishing in last place.

Wouldn’t it be reasonable to say that the reason the team had done so well in the past was because of great coaching? Or did they just get lucky each and every one of the five years I coached against them? However, rarely if ever do you hear a coach say “I got out coached”, it is the litany of excuses cited above. The perennial losing coach will always chalk it up to luck of the draw or players. Because to do otherwise would mean he was not doing a good job. By him making it all about luck, it means the poor guy was just unlucky enough to not have that winning lotto ticket. You often find this type is the green eyed jealousy type that disparages those successful coaches, trying to bring them down to his level by piling on supposed extra benefits the winning program has over his. These guys aren’t very fun to be around and rarely excel at anything meaningful in life. They are the ones that pay attention to what others are doing instead of controlling what they can control, their own team.

In 2004 I started a brand new program in a rural area near Hickman, Nebraska. The existing youth program often fielded teams of 40-60 players on one team. The four years prior to when I got there, they had won a grand total of 4-5 games. Their thought was the more players they had, the better chance of finding that star that would carry the team. I was told all the winning my teams had done in Omaha wouldn’t matter here, this was a basketball and cross country town.

My first year there, we fielded a team of 24 kids of which only 2 had played before and they were bench warmers for their previous team. At age 8-10 we only had 1 player above 100 lbs and I had 13 eight year olds. Our entire starting backfield was 8 years old and my whole team minus 2 kids are rookies. My coaching staff included just one coach that had coached football before. We were a motley crew and really struggled in a league of teams that had all been around for 10-20 years. Slowly but surely we improved and ended up 11-0. We played all the kids in each game and we cut no one.

The next two years while many of the players moved up to the older ranks I stayed with that team and we went 12-0 and 11-1, “mercy ruling” over 80% of our opponents. Why the difference in outcomes? Scheme and Priorities.

While quite often player mistakes do play a pivotal role in lost games, what leads up to these player mistakes? Let’s say that a team lost and there were pivotal errors that included a team jumping offsides on offense, poor open field tackling and too many negative yardage plays. The head coach is responsible for not only making choices on schemes but also prioritizing practice time as well as the methods used in implementing skill development. If a team is having a problem with the snap count that is simple to resolve, go on a set count every time and to make sure the other team is not jumping your count, have a “no play” in place where your players do nothing but draw the other team offsides. Don Markham at Bloomington High School in California set a National Scoring Record of 880 points in a 14 game season with that same simple snap count method. As to the open field tackling, maybe that coach is spending his valuable practice time doing lots of time wasting cals, agility drills, scrimmaging or endless conditioning instead of working on open field tackling. Many of the negative yardage plays could be negated by tightening up the splits and running inside more to name just a few. There are countless ways to address those types of problems.

When a team does poorly who should one react? Tyrone Willingham told those of us attending the Nike Clinic in Chantilly, Virginia that the coach should take responsibility for his team playing poorly. Coach was very impressive as he carefully laid out the fact that the buck should and does stop with the head coach. It is the head coach that chooses the schemes and sets the priorities as well as the player selection and coaching delegating duties. It should be the responsibility of the head coach to accept blame and deflect harassment of his players and coaches. So publicly he takes responsibility, he does so privately as well but privately he does work to make sure that the coaches and players understand their role and what they need to do to correct the problems.

What a great lesson to teach a young man he sees someone fail, they admit they failed and take responsibility for it, then set in place a plan to make sure those same things do not happen again. In the last 64 games, my teams have lost twice, both times the fault was with me either in preparation the week before, or in game management. On both occasions I told the players it was my fault and why, I even had them all point at the person whose fault it was we lost the game, they all pointed at me.

I did tell them what we would do differently to make sure we didn’t make those types of mistakes in the future. However, I can confidently say during that stretch we won many a game against teams much bigger and talented than us. Hopefully the kids learned a bit about taking responsibility and that empty excuse making serves only to sooth the ego of the loser and delays any real progress from being made.

Last season my coaches learned a great lesson. Before our loss in 2006, I had told one of my assistants to see how our kicker was doing before the game. Our kicker had been a bit spotty the last few games but had been very good earlier in the year. I said if he looked strong and was hitting at 66% of his practice kicks we would kick our extra point which is worth 2 points. During pre-game coach told me he was hitting about 60% or so and the wind was negligible. I asked coach what he thought we should do, he said kick. I agreed and when we scored our first TD we kicked and missed. The game ended in a tie and we lost it on the last play of the game in OT. I never mentioned the kick, coach said “I’m sorry” I asked him “about what?”. I told him I decided if we were going to kick or not and I had made a number of other coaching errors in the game and in the week of preparation, the decision and fault was mine alone.

The very next week we had a backup defensive end have to start a game due to an injury. This player got called for lining up off-sides 4 times. The reason he was lining up off-sides is because the same coach had the defensive end using the down marker stick as a landmark. The only problem was the field was poorly marked and the down marker was quite often way off. This coach apologized to the team and player publicly after the game, accepting responsibility for the player lining up off-sides. The next week he made sure this player was coached properly for the next game. I was about as pleased about that turn of events as I was about any championship we’ve won.

Can a team be well coached and finish 2-9? Sure but it is VERY rare. You may have a “perfect storm” situation a 1-1000 ‘perfect storm”. The problem is I see guys going 1-10, 2-9, 3-8 year after year after year with the same tired old system and silly priorities, systems and priorities that the head coach chooses. The unbelievable thing is at the High School level many of these guys keep getting hired and recycled to other schools where they do the exact same thing.

If coaching didn’t matter and it was all about Jimmys and Joes there wouldn’t be a need for coaches. What is amazing is to see guys like Don Markham or Dr John Ward go to losing program after losing program and turn each and every one of them around. No five year plans, they are going from 0-fer to playing for District or State Titles. The year Don’s team set the national scoring record and won 14 games, the previous year under a different coach they won 1 game and scored just a handful of points! Dr Ward has done the same with a long list of hapless programs he has turned around and both do it with offenses that are a bit contrarian, the Double Wing and Single Wing.

The next time you hear a coach whining and making excuses ask him what he is doing to combat the supposed excuse. Ask him if his entire plan for getting better is wishing and hoping the football fairy is going to give him better football players next year. What a great plan because if that plan fails he can point his finger at the football fairy instead of himself.

When your team plays well, give credit to your players and assistant coaches, when your team loses or plays poorly do the right thing and take PERSONAL responsibility. Don’t be a “dog ate the homework” guy. When your team loses don’t make excuses, give the other team, their players and coaches the credit. Be a teacher not an enabling excuse maker. Don’t worry about the opposition; make your team the best they can be, your players will be better for it 10-20 years from now.

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