The Secret Ingredient of Youth Sport Success / by James Leath

“Hey coach, great game. Would you mind sharing your playbook with me?” The elementary football game was over and the team under my supervision was victorious. While the athletes replay their favorite moments on the field, the opposing coach and I have a private discussion on the sideline.

“Not at all, coach. I’ll give you everything I have. However, it may not do you much good,” I said. “Why do you say that?” he asked. “Is it really complex?”

It wasn’t complex at all. In fact, it was week 4 of the 8-game season, we just recorded our fourth win, and I hadn’t added any new plays in two weeks.

We met the next morning at Uncle Harry’s Bagel shop. He had with him a notebook and, to my delight, he had questions prepared he wanted to ask.

Note: if you ask someone to coffee for the purpose of “picking their brain” you will find the generousness of the person will match your level of preparation for the meeting. I was ready to give this guy all the information I could simply because he showed me he was prepared to “fill his cup.”

I ordered an espresso and we sat down. I handed him a page I printed out the night before. On one side--eight scripted plays, all from one formation. On the other side--an array of squares and circles with lines for the depth chart.

He looked a little confused as he looked over both sides of the page. “Is this your gameplan from yesterday?”

“No,” I replied. “That is my entire playbook.”

“You only have one formation...and eight plays?”

“Yup. I teach that formation on the first day of practice and explain the roles of each position. This gives them an idea of where they might want to play. Then, the next day I teach the huddle and practice going from the huddle to the line of scrimmage.”

The coach breaks eye contact to write down some notes. I continue...

“We start every practice by splitting into groups and going from the huddle to lining up on the line of scrimmage. It is much more productive than running an arbitrary number of sprints, plus they get used to getting to the line of scrimmage fast. I am in teaching mode. They are kids and will respond to yelling and screaming, but it is unnecessary. I use a calm voice and encourage questions.”

We spent three hours at that coffee shop taking his complex playbook and turning it on its head. Two weeks later, that coach and his team recorded their first win. I got a text message, “We won today. Thanks, Coach.”

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Coaches will argue with me that a complex playbook will bring success. My challenge to those coaches is to ask their athletes to raise their right hand. At least ⅓ of the kids will raise the wrong hand. I embrace simplicity and allow athletes to master a few basic concepts with enough cognitive energy to be creative.

Also, while the simple playbook is among the most important things many youth coaches overlook, turning the field into a classroom of learning can also be very productive. Yelling at kids does not increase compliance. If compliance is what you are looking for, here are some things to consider:

Seek the trust of your athletes. Create a safe environment where learning can take place. Once they trust you, you can push them to be uncomfortable.

Seek to teach them in a way they can understand, not defaulting to the way you were coached as a child.

Seek activities that are both fun and are applicable to learning. For example, instead of post-practice sprints, play a game like capture the flag or tree-tag. Games that take the whole field teach lessons like angle of pursuit and spacial awareness. Also, remember that a kid will run faster and harder during a game than during a “sprint” session.

When the losses start piling up, it is easy to think a new play or formation will solve the problem. We forget that these are kids, playing a game, and if we could just get out of the way and let them play, we would more often see that beautiful moment of a child doing something they love.