Ultimate Guide to Coaching Youth Football

Youth boys playing football.
Maintaining discipline may be one of your toughest challenges as a coach. See more football pictures.
©iStockphoto.com/Iris Nieves

Perhaps you love football. Maybe you even played football in high school. And now, you've signed your own child up for the local youth football league. What's more, you've agreed to coach his team. That was a couple of months ago, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. Now practices are looming, and you realize you are a little underprepared.

While the prospect of coaching a team of enthusiastic, young football star wannabes might seem daunting, armed with some basic information and a practice plan, you could have the time of your life. Remember, youth sports are supposed to be a fun way to learn basic life skills -- respect for others (both on your team and on opposing teams), discipline, hard work, and following through when the going gets tough. Modeling those values for your players may go a long way toward your success as a coach [source: Coaching Youth Football].


Two tips can help get you started: First, keep in mind that every league is going to have different requirements and rules, both for players and for coaches. Before you even start planning your practices and drilling your players, you'll need to check out the handbook for your specific league. This manual should also note the required equipment, safety rules and weather-related rules that are specific to your league. Additionally, many leagues make this information available on their Web sites.

Second, you should bear in mind that maintaining discipline is probably going to be one of the main challenges you face as a coach. Mental, physical and emotional discipline will all contribute to proper play, training and conditioning, and learning to win and lose graciously. Your players should develop the ability to work as a team, which doesn't always come naturally to people. You will need to stress both discipline and teamwork from the very first minute you begin practices [source: Pasqualoni and McLaughlin].

With those two tips as a starting place, you are ready to go on to some of the rules, drills, skills and strategies you'll need to have a successful coaching experience. To get a handle on the basics, read on to the next page.



Youth Football Rules

There are two basic ways of earning points in football: Scoring a touchdown, which entails getting the ball into the opposing team's end zone by passing it or running it across the goal line, or scoring a field goal by kicking the ball through the opposing team's goal posts.

The team in possession of the ball has four chances, called "downs," to move the ball 10 yards (9.14 meters) farther toward their opponent's end zone. If they achieve this 10-yard objective, they then get four more downs in which to move 10 more yards down the field. However, if they do not move the ball 10 yards, they lose possession of the ball. The opposing team then has four downs in which to move the ball 10 yards in the opposite direction. The objective is for the team in possession of the ball to score a touchdown or a field goal in the other team's end zone. If a team is willing to give up possession of the ball, they may punt the ball to the other team after three downs. This moves the ball many yards away from your team's own end zone and may put your team in scoring position if the other team loses possession of the ball [source: Pasqualoni and McLaughli].


Each team is made up of linemen, who play at the line of scrimmage, and "backs" -- a quarterback, running backs, and so on. Most plays begin with the center (a lineman) snapping the ball -- or moving it a quick, continuous motion -- through his legs to the quarterback. The quarterback may then run the ball or pass the ball to another player who runs with it toward the opposing team's end zone. The other linemen are responsible for blocking the opposing team's players as they try to interfere with this process [source: McCarthy].

In "full contact" football, or tackle football, a play ends when the player holding the ball goes out of bounds or is forced to the ground by a player on the opposite team. In flag football, or "no contact" football, a play ends when the player holding the ball runs out of bounds or has his flag removed from his uniform by a member of the opposite team [sources: NFL Youth Football, Rice Recreation Center].

For information on the equipment needed to play youth football safely, read on.


Youth Football Equipment

Since tackle football is a contact sport in which players are routinely knocked down and pushed into by other players, safety equipment is an absolute necessity. Furthermore, a proper fit for all safety equipment is essential to its functioning correctly.

The player's helmet should be fitted by someone who knows what he's doing. It's not a good idea to let youth players choose their own helmets. Since players will often have wet hair when they play due to perspiration, some experts recommend having players do helmet fittings with wet hair. Also, make an effort to check that players' helmets fit at intervals throughout the season to ensure that changes in hairstyle have not caused the helmet to become loose. Nose bumper guards, jaw pads, face masks, mouth guards and chin straps should be intact and should fit properly also [source: Insurevents].


Shoulder pads are specific to various positions. Make sure players have the correct pads for their positions and that the pads attach correctly and stay in place. Other pads, such as hip pads, thigh pads and knee pads are kept in the proper position by a players' pants, so correct fit, which should be snug but not too tight, is important [source: Insurevents].

In addition, you will need several footballs for both team practices and games, as well as flags and flag belts if you are coaching a flag football league [source: NFL Youth Football].

For more information on coaching youth football, including basic skills, drills and special teams, keep reading.


Teaching Basic Football Skills

You should never assume that players already know how to perform basic skills. Even experienced players may be out of practice or need improvement in the fundamental skills needed to carry out more complex plays. Learning and drilling basic skills is an important part of physical conditioning for your players.

When you teach a basic skill, try demonstrating the skill first with the help of another coach or an experienced player, if needed. Demonstrate the skill slowly as first, so that players can see the proper technique. Then demonstrate at normal speed. After the demonstration, it may help to drill the skill in a fairly noncompetitive way. Try to avoid having players spend a lot of time waiting to practice a skill. This can lead to bored players and wasted practice time. Instead, set up several drills and rotate players through them, or use drills that keep the maximum number of players involved [source: Bach].


Also, keep an eye out for players who aren't catching on as quickly -- they may need more assistance from you. It can also help to stay positive, and be quick to praise players when they get things right, even small things [source: Bach].

Even though not every player will be throwing or receiving passes, every player needs basic throwing and catching practice. All players also need some basic offensive skills, including running the ball and centering the ball. Similarly, every player needs to learn basic defensive skills such as blocking and tackling [source: Coaching Youth Football].

Once your players are comfortable with their basic skills, you can have them practice those skills in a number of different drills. For some suggestions on what drills to try, keep reading.


Youth Football Drills

Practice drills can be crucial to success on the playing field. While players in all sports can benefit from drills, those designed for youth football are generally meant to provide position-specific practice. If you have an inexperienced team -- or if you do not yet know who will be playing which position -- you may want to have all players participate in all of the drills. Moving through several drills during the course of each practice session can help make sure that no one drill becomes tedious.

For receivers, you can try a drill in which each player catches a pass, tucks the ball -- or cradles it the forearm, holding it close to the side of his body -- and then immediately freezes. The receivers should look at the football and stare at it, frozen, until told to release. To finish, players can either throw it back to the quarterback or run up the field. This drill stresses the importance of tucking the ball away after a catch.


A drill that may work well for linemen is to have the defensive linemen arrange themselves opposite the offensive linemen at the goal line. The offensive player should assume a blocking position and, at the sound of the whistle, try to drive the defensive player backwards across the line with his body and score. You or another coach should check each player's body position and make corrections as needed.

Now that you know how to effectively teach drills, it is time to explore two types of offensive plays in football. Read on to learn about running plays and passing plays.


Offensive Plays for Youth Football

There are two basic types of offensive plays in youth football -- running plays and passing plays. In general, players should work on both types. The plays you choose to run may depend a lot on the formations you use for your team.

You should have, in general, no more than around 12 formations, and sometimes you will need far fewer than that. Some basic formations include the "I," the "Wing-T" and the "Spread." An "I" formation, with the fullback and running back lined up directly behind the quarterback, can lead to successful running and passing plays. By using this formation, your quarterback can run, hand the ball to a halfback or fullback, or throw a pass.


In a "Wing-T" or a "Wishbone" formation, there are three backs and two tight ends. A "Spread" formation, on the other hand, has most of your offense spread at or near the line of scrimmage. All three of these formations create different types of opportunities for running and passing the ball.

You will probably want to concentrate on teaching your players one or two of these formations to begin with and then slowly build your plays based on these formations. It is a good idea to have a couple of passing plays and a couple of running plays ready to utilize before your first game. Keep it simple -- you can always add more plays later. If you need ideas, try asking more experienced coaches or checking online resources for specific plays.

A successful team is strong both offensively and defensively. Read on to learn about the importance of teaching defensive playing in youth football.


Defensive Plays for Youth Football

Before you teach your players any defensive football plays, it might help to make sure they can tackle. If your players can't tackle effectively, no amount of fancy strategy is going to help you. They also need to know how to handle blockers. Blockers are players on the opposing team that try to keep your players from tackling whoever is in possession of the ball.

For young players, there are three basic defensive moves you can teach them. The first is the "bull rush." This is a charging move that can work well if a blocker has his weight resting primarily on his heels. Another defensive move is the "pin and rip." In this move, the defender must stay low and use his momentum to pin the blocker's arm. A "push-pull" move can be used if the blocker is settling his weight forward. His forward momentum is essentially what pulls him down.


Once these moves have been introduced, you may be ready to move on to defensive plays. Explain to your players that defensive plays all have the same goal: to stop the opposing team from moving the ball. They should focus on stopping the other team from getting first downs. If they do this successfully, the opposing team will have a hard time scoring, and your team will get possession of the ball [source: Long and Czarnecki].

It is a good idea to teach your players a few basic formations and a few simple plays to begin with. You may move on to more complicated plays as they progress or as you coach more experienced players. Many examples of specific lineups and defensive plays are available on the Internet, both free and for a price [source: PlaySportsTV].

Special teams are an often overlooked element of youth football. Read on to learn more about these.


Special Teams in Youth Football

Special teams -- players who are on the field during situations like kickoffs, punts, field goals and extra point attempts -- don't always get a lot of attention in youth football. However, kicking off, punting and punt returning are situations you will likely face in each and every game. Therefore, it's a good idea to make sure these situations aren't consistently ones in which you are at a disadvantage. Focusing on the strength of your special teams will ensure success in these scenarios.

You will want to identify those players that will be your kickers, punters and punt returners so that you can focus on developing their skills early on. Make sure that these players get to practice their punts, kickoffs, field goals and extra points at every practice.


You may also find that your league has specific rules for special teams. Often, special teams' skills are relatively undeveloped in young players. Modified kickoff rules and modified punting rules are sometimes used at various grade or age levels to increase player safety. These tend to regulate contact between players during these plays. For example, in some age groups, rushing the punter is not allowed [source: DCAYFL].

For more information on coaching youth sports, check out the links on the following page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Sport Education Program. Coaching Youth Football. Human Kinetics, 2005, p. 8
  • Anderson. "Goal Line Tackle Drill." http://www.eteamz.com/football/instruction/tips/tip.cfm/1346/ (Accessed 1/17/2010)
  • Bach, Greg, The National Alliance of Youth Sports. Coaching Youth Football for Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, Inc, 2006..
  • Dane County Area Youth Football League (DCAYFL). "Rules." (Accessed 1/2/10) http://www.dcayfl.us/attachments/DCAYFL_RULES_2009.pdf
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