Common Coaching Mistakes

What are the most common mistakes youth-football coaches make?

by John T. Reed

Having any assistant coaches who are not your brother, sister, son, father, spouse, or other close relative or longtime personal friend. About 95% of youth football head coaches make this mistake. If you have assistant coaches who played football in high school or college and who have kids on the team, most of them will argue endlessly with you about everything. The dissenters will often go against your instructions when your back is turned. Most will bad mouth you to their son and to the other parents on the team. If you miss a practice or game, these men will put in the systems and plays they want and abandon your approach while you are away. If you stand firm against some change they want, some will go to the board and try to get them to order you to do it your assistants’ way or to get you fired. Read my lips. No assistants who are not trusted relatives, proven in past coaching with you, or longtime close personal friends.

Wasting practice time on conditioning and low-priority drills. An efficient practice with minimal standing-around time will take care of conditioning better than pure conditioning drills like calisthenics, gassers, running the stadium steps, grass drills, and the like. Because of limited practice time and players usually going both ways, youth coaches can rarely find time for drills. Teaching assignments and making sure each player knows them takes priority and consumes almost all practice time, especially early in the season.

Subjecting players to sadistic football rituals like leg raises or bull in the ring in the name of conditioning or toughening. The real reason is to let middle aged men impress kids with how tough the middle-aged men were when they were kids. I should sell tee shirts that say, “the older my coach gets, the better he was and the more oblivious he becomes to how little we care” to youth players.

Taking more than 20 to 30 seconds per play in practice. The typical youth football practice features coaches talking for three to five minutes between each play while the players stand around listening or staring into space.

Not working out the details of blocking assignments against various defenses and making sure the players know them.

Failing to give centers, long snappers, holders, passers, and option quarterbacks enough reps so they can master their assigned skill.

Failing to insist that linemen stay lower than their line opponent.

100% platooning, that is, prohibiting any players from playing both offense and defense. The best 11 should be on the field as much as permitted. Typically, that means about seven guys go both ways and you only platoon about four each on offense and defense

Failing to hold a parent meeting at which you explain your offensive and defensive schemes and policies on position assignments and playing time.

Failing to practice and perfect administrative duties like getting substitutes in and out of the game on time.

Neglecting to spend at least 15 minutes on each of the six special teams per week.

Ignoring the need to teach and practice clock-management techniques.

Killing their own drives by throwing incomplete passes or interceptions.

Varying the snap count (or even having a snap count), thereby causing false starts, which, in turn, result in punting away possession of the ball on the series in which the false start occurred.

Failing to fix obvious problems like repeated fumbled handoffs or incomplete passes.

Giving prestigious positions out on the basis of nepotism rather than ability and team need.

Putting all good players in the backfield or at wide receiver and all weak players on the line.

Failing to insist on ten minutes per practice of perfectly executed form tackling.

Failing to insist that kickoff and punt returners catch the kick in the air.

Failing to scout upcoming opponents.

Running practice scrimmages against your own offense and defense. The one team I guarantee you will not face during the season is your own. You should never run your offense against your defense. I am talking about the scheme, not the personnel. When you are practicing offense, have your defense line up in the upcoming opponent’s defense, not yours. Ditto when you are practing defense. Have your offense line up in the upcoming opponent’s formations and run their plays.

Failing to videotape all games and some practices, identify problem areas, and fix them.

Putting undisciplined good athletes at contain on defense instead of disciplined players.

Kicking off and punting to the opponents’ best running backs.

Letting receivers backpedal or do 360-degree spins when trying to catch long passes. Just run under it.

Letting players hit full speed and tackle to the ground in practice. A month or two of full-speed hitting is necessary to get rookies over their fear of hitting. Veterans needs to show the rookies what hitting looks like and feels like. One or two sessions of full-speed hitting are also necessary to ascertain which players belong in the offensive and defensive line and who wants to make tackles. But full-speed hitting should generally be eliminated from practice by the end of the second month.

Accepting penalties as an inevitable part of football, or, worse, as a welcome sign of aggressiveness. You will generally be forced to punt or turn the ball over on downs in the same series that you draw a penalty on offense. On defense, penalties enable an opponent who was about to have to punt to you to keep the ball for four more downs.

Having too many plays, formations, and defenses. You should have about four to twelve plays (the older the players, the more plays), one or two offensive formations, and one or two defenses. You do not need more and it will be a bear just to teach that many.

Failing to give your defense enough practice stopping the most difficult plays: sweep, reverse, fake reverse, counter, slant pass, halfback pass.

Substituting minimum-play players as an entire 11-man unit (usually with a non-minimum-play quarterback and running back). Minimum-play players should only be substituted one at a time at flanker (split end if you are using a full-house backfield offense like the double-wing or wishbone) on offense or interior line on defense. An entire offensive unit of minimum-play players will almost invariably go three and out, often losing yards in the process. You only get 6 to 10 possessions a game. An all-MPP defense often gives up a touchdown on its first play.

Assigning the most junior, inexperienced coach to the offensive line. That was my first assignment when I first started coaching. In my final years, I also coached the offensive line myself as head coach, but then I did it because I had figured out that it is the most important unit and the one most in need of coaching.


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