"The New Coach" - Think like a Teacher (4 of 5) / by James Leath

“Hey coach, I’ll buy you dinner if you share your playbook with me .” I was in my third year as the head coach of a youth football team who had lost a total of 2 games in the past 3 seasons. We had just finished another contest and beaten our opponent soundly. After the game I went to shake hands with the coach. Imagine my surprise when he offered to buy me dinner in exchange for my playbook. I thought he was joking at first, but I soon realized he was being sincere. I was honored (and a bit humbled) he would ask that. I accepted (why would I turn down a free meal?) and said I am afraid he would be disappointed. He assured me he would not, so I obliged and reached into my pocket, pulled out a 5x7 card and handed it to him. “Here is my entire offense and the strategy I used to today.”

I could see on his face he was shocked. There were eight plays listed on one side in various combinations and the starting lineup with subs on the back. We met the next day and went over my entire playbook, all two pages of it. I gave him my practice plans, a list of drills, and invited him to practice anytime, which he eventually took me up on.

Why would I do that? The answer to that is simple and sometimes gets lost in youth sports: it’s not about me (the coach), it’s about the kids. My way of coaching is nothing special. I have no secret weapons and no private strategy I am unwilling to share with anyone who asks. My kids were no different than his kids, and all those kids deserved a great experience playing sports. If my simple way of coaching can help, fantastic. Word spread fast about my generosity and that was not the last free dinner I was invited to that season.

This is part four of a five-part series based on some things I believe will help new youth coaches find success. This week, I discuss how to plan what you will be teaching.



Part 4: Think like a Teacher.

Determine what fundamental skills should be taught and in what order. Ask yourself, “By the end of the season, what do I want my athletes to be able to do?” Spend most of your time on teaching and reinforcing those skills. For example, a beginner basketball player in elementary school needs to know how to dribble, pass, shoot and rebound. They need to be able to slow down their body, set their feet, and shoot with confidence instead of a prayer. Basic offensive and defensive positions need to be learned, since often times in youth sports, success comes from being in the right spot at the right time. Spending precious hours on complex plays puts an unnecessary focus on winning by strategy, rather than fundamentals. In youth sports, one star player on the other team and victory is a pipe dream.

Here is a test for you if you think you need a complex playbook, or anything more than a basic strategy. Ask your team to respond to the following statement as fast as they can: “Raise your left hand.” The ones who raise their right hand are not stupid; they simply have not developed the cognitive skill to process information at the speed at which sports require. Make it easier for your athletes to be successful by being great at the fundamentals without hesitation. The athlete who hesitates will be left in the dust by the athlete who receives no other instruction but to play fast and use the skills developed in practice.

In youth football, I have one formation. We practice it first thing everyday for five minutes. We have eight plays. As the season progresses, depending on the athletes I have, I add a few wrinkles, maybe a spread formation or a heavy run formation. It infuriates the other coaches that I am able to yell, “Check, check,” say a play in broad daylight for everyone to hear, then they run it successfully. The point is, my players know exactly where to go, while the defense, even though they know the play, cannot react fast enough. Besides, when I yell Sweep Left, the smart defensive players think we are going left. However, we are not going to the defense’s left, but to our left. I have won many games with this strategy, including three championships in a row. Bottom line, don’t overcomplicate a youth sports playbook.