Confidence beats Complexity / by James Leath

In 2009, I was in my third year as the head coach of a very successful youth football team. In the eyes of the parent and fans, most would say we were successful because we won often, but winning a game says nothing about the character of the team. Those boys (and girls) were successful because they practiced hard, paid attention to details, and bought into the idea of competing every play until the whistle blows. They could do that better than many teams we faced because I valued confidence over complexity.

In fact, after winning our 4th game in a row, the head coach from the other team approached me after the game. We had just beat them 35-0, despite pulling out all my starters in the second half. He asked me very frankly, "Will you give me your playbook?" My answer: "Of course!"

For as long as I have been coaching youth football, my playbook has not changed much. It consists of 2 formations and ten plays. I don't focus on the x's and o's. Instead, I learn new ways to teach the fundamentals. In coaching youth football, and I have found:

  • complexity creates confusion;

  • confusion leads to hesitation;

  • hesitation leads to failed plays;

  • failed plays lead to defeat.

An athlete who hesitates will not be successful in the game of football, or in most other sports. (I wrote a similar article about teaching 6th graders how to shoot a basketball here.)

Here are a few reasons my playbook is so small: 

1. Ask a 6th grader to raise their left hand, and they will raise their left hand about 50% of the time.

  • Instead of warming up with sprints, we practice formations. Kids don't need to warm up as much as adults do, so long as they have moved around at school. We get in the huddle and practice getting to the line of scrimmage efficiently. After the first week, with only two formations, most players know exactly where to line up, even if it is their first time playing that position. Additionally, the players know where those around him or her should lineup, so they start coaching each other. "You're too close, scoot out." "Get closer to the line." "Put your other foot forward." The players begin to coach each other and create an environment where it is okay to lead each other.

2. A player can play a different position quickly because the play is simple.

  • The tight end always lines up on the right, every play. If I need someone else to play that spot, the other players can help police that player. Empowering the athletes to coach each other saves me time, it teaches leadership, and it creates a sense of ownership for their team.

3. I can quickly change the play before the other team can adjust.

  • From the sideline, or during a time-out, if I see an opportunity to change things up and be successful, it is pretty straightforward. They approach the line, get set, and the QB knows to look at me before he starts his cadence. I yell, "Check, Check!" and 11 face-masks point at me. I yell "Sweep right!" and every player hits the side of their helmet, letting me know they heard me and they run the play. Of course, the smart players on the other team here "Sweep Right" and cheat to the right. But because they are facing us, they literally take themselves out of the play because their right is our left.

  • Before the coach can let his players know how to adjust, we are already running the new play. Note: some opposing coaches pick up on this and can let a player know it is coming to them. However, just because I yelled a play out does not mean we are running that play. My team knows only to run the play when "the sign" is given. You have to practice this a lot. Again, we do it during warm-ups.

I met that coach who asked me for my playbook met for coffee the next morning, and I gave him everything I had installed that year, plus all I had planned to teach. We met in the playoffs a few weeks later, and I could tell he had implemented almost everything I gave him. The only difference was that my offense had evolved as the season progressed, so we had a little more to work with. We still won, but this time it was 21-8. He had the same players as before, but he kept things simple, his players were confident, and it felt like we were playing a completely different team.

The strategy is essential, of course. As the age of the athlete increases, so should the size of the playbook. But a young athlete with confidence is his or her ability to do the job they have been given can overcome a strategy that might not be as advanced as the one the opponent has prepared.

Focus on creating confident, fundamentally sound athletes during the week. Then, on game day, let them play. Give the athletes the tools they need and let them build a victory. When the game starts, it is less about coaching anyway and more about managing. If your young athletes can master the basics and they truly understand their job on each play, then you are way ahead of most youth football coaches I come across who focus more on tricking the other coach than on developing sound football players.