Winning with a Mediocre Team / by James Leath

“Why do you yell so much at practice?”
“Because they don’t listen.”
“But they’re kids…have you taught them what to listen for?”
“They should know.”
That was an actual conversation I had a few months ago with a friend of mine that was coaching a 7th-grade football team. They weren’t very good, having lost 4 of the last 6 games, so he asked me to come to practice and see if there was anything I could see that would help. 

The first thing I noticed was there was a lot of yelling. I love a loud practice. Coaches barking orders, players responding in kind, claps and thigh slaps in unison…music to my ears. 
But that was not what was going on in this practice. 
Coaches were yelling at players, not to them. 
“Dammit, get in line Wilson.” 
“Stop the f*#@ing talking!”
“What are you doing, Sanchez? You are slow as shit!” 

It took a lot for me to keep my mouth shut, but experience has taught me there is a time and a place to offer suggestions to adults about how they do what they do. 

My friend and I spent some time afterward going over my notes. It wasn’t all bad, so I started with the good stuff. I could see him puff his chest a bit as I went over the good highlights. A prideful smile crept on to his face when I commented on the precision of a few offensive plays during the all-team portion. 

Then, I asked, “Why do you yell so much at practice?” 
“Because they don’t listen.”
“But they’re kids…have you taught them what to listen for?”
“They should know.”
I thought for a moment. “But why should they know? Who taught them before you?” 
Coach started to answer, then caught himself. 
“Give me an example of what you are talking about.”
I recited some of the conceding and demeaning quotes I had written down. 
"Who said those thing?" 
I smiled. 
“I said those things?”
“Yes, all within the first 10 minutes of practice.”
“Alright, man... I’m listening.”

It is not often I can offer suggestions to a coach without the coach getting defensive. Like parenting, when someone suggests a different way to coach, we take it as a personal attack instead of first evaluating the offering and accepting that there may be a better way to do either. 

How I won with a Mediocre Team
I was the head coach for a 6th-grade football team. It was the inaugural season for all teams in the district. I averaged a roster of 29 athletes and was the only coach most of the time, though I did have some parents and teachers assist when they could. We went to the championship three years in a row, winning twice and losing only two games in those three years. I had a playbook of 10 plays, one formation, and practice was a flurry of mini-games that taught the fundamentals of tackling, blocking, catching, and throwing. Halfway through practice was a ten-minute “recess” where the children could go from being an athlete to being a kid on a football team. It was our “halftime” and the players loved it. 

Since we only had one formation, the offense knew exactly where to line up. We practiced lining up every day as a part of our warmup.  

The defense was simple and the players knew what their job was. We went over their assignments every day, and those assignments rarely changed. 

But simplicity in youth sports is only half of the equation. The other half is getting their attention on command.
During a game, from the sideline, I would call an audible buy yelling, "Check, check!" as my players ran to the line of scrimmage. Without fail, every player on the field would freeze, turn their head toward me, hear the new play, tap their helmet as a response, then run the play. It didn't matter that the other team heard it. It would all happen in a matter of three or four seconds—not enough time for the other coach to adjust and get his players in the right spot. Some defensive opponents were quick to respond, so they would hear me yell, “Sweep right” and look for the play to go to their right. However, in football, the defensive “right” is not the same as the offensive “right” so some defensive players would effectively take themselves out of the play. On defense, I could call out a name, offer a command, and get a response immediately. 

We could do this in the game because we practiced it during the week. 

Since the playbook was simple, my athletes could rely on the fundamentals. They knew if they heard the coach call out a name, “Williams, take two steps left and stay home!” Williams would know exactly what that meant…and he would do it. 
In youth sports, simplicity beats complexity, and equipping kids with tools of ability then teaching them where and how to use them can lead to victory much more often than a complicating, ever-changing playbook and a coach that is frustrated with their own inability to communicate to their players. 

To find more success in youth sports, simplify your playbook, increase your ability to connect with children, and practice in-game situations. But whatever you do, don’t assume the child has learned how to listen and respond. We are the adults, and we are their models for how to be.
Be a great adult.