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 fans, they would say we were successful because we won a lot, but winning a game says nothing about the character of the team— the true measure of success. Those boys (and a few girls) were successful because they practiced hard, paid attention to details, and bought into the idea of playing every play until the whistle blows. For as long as I have been coaching youth football, my playbook has not changed much. It consists of 2 formations and 10 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 leads to defeat.

An athlete who hesitates will not be successful in the game of football, or in most other sports for that matter.

Here are a few reasons my playbook is so small: 1. Ask a 6th grader to raise their left hand and they will, about 50% of the time.

  • During warm-ups we do not do sprints. We get in the huddle and practice getting to the line of scrimmage efficiently. After the first week, with only 2 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. Saves me time and because the players are helping each other, it creates a sense of ownership of their team.

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

  • Since the players are always lined up in the same spot, I can see an opportunity in the defense and change the play in less than 3 seconds. 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 are pointed 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 are able to let a player know it is coming to them. However, just because I yelled a play out does not mean we are actually 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.

It doesn’t happen often, but one time I was approached head coach of the other team after the game and he wanted to talk privately. 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?” We met for coffee the next morning and I gave him everything I had installed that year and things I planned on installing. 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 important, 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.

The focus of the coach should be on creating confident, fundamentally sound athletes during the week. Then, on gameday, 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.