There are many complicated decisions that youth football coaches make each season.
Selecting the right offense is one of them.
“The hardest thing for a youth coach is putting kids in the right position to succeed,” said Kyle Witherspoon, a 13-year veteran youth coach with the Blue Valley Football Club in Overland Park, Kan. “You have to install a system that works with the talent you have and that you have legitimate time to teach. It’s a balancing act.”
Such is the challenge facing youth coaches: What is the right way to select an offense? What factors must be considered?
Andy Ryland, football development manager for USA Football, said there are three key points to remember during the selection process.
“First, you have to ask what your kids are physically capable of doing,” Ryland said. “(Second,) what do you have time to teach? Then, what can they mentally comprehend?
“A 10-year-old doesn’t take advanced geometry. Your offense should be addition and subtraction. Pulls and screens? That’s advanced geometry. That’s not for 10-year-olds.”
Getting to know his players helps Witherspoon choose schemes. He coaches a team from second grade all the way through eighth grade, building on the lessons as players progress.
But whether coaches follow their players through the years or start with a new group each season, the fundamentals remain the same.
“You have to start with the basics when they’re young and then add to it,” Witherspoon said. “Once the building blocks are in place, you can run the shotgun or the spread (formations). We play against teams that run the spread, with the quarterback wearing a wristband, (with plays) and half the time the snap goes over his head. You need a good foundation before you can (progress) to that.”
For many youth coaches, keeping it simple often proves to be the recipe for sustained success.
“The system has to be simplified as to minimize decision-making in youth football,” said Dustin Kestranek, who coaches eighth-graders with the Marquette Jr. Mustangs in Chesterfield, Mo. “Before the play, we determine whether (the quarterback will) keep or give the ball. In our offense, we just call the play so our quarterback isn’t in a position to make a decision after the play has started.”
“What I always do is: Keep it simple, keep the playbook small and use tools like misdirection,” Witherspoon said. “I have a sweep, and I have a counter play, like a reverse. I show (the opponent) those power plays early in the game, and if they don’t succeed originally, I’ll use the counter play later in the game.”
While there are many ways to pick an offense for youth players, Ryland said the ultimate goal is putting players in a position to succeed. USA Football developed a Player Progression Development Model (PPDM) that highlights what players should be capable of at varying age levels, giving coaches who are unsure a starting point to work from.
“Most coaches believe repetition is the key to mastery,” Ryland said. “You need a small package of fundamentally sound plays that your players have time to learn and you and your staff have time to teach. In that vein, the generic development pathway (USA Football created) discusses what the players are capable of and then the PPDM gives options of what you can do for those players at those levels.
“Our Football and Wellness Committee has put together those options that are going to be best developmentally for youth players, with the most proven science of what players can and can’t do at these ages. We want to grow their baseline knowledge so they can do fancier stuff later. We want to progress to the geometry, but we have to start with the basics.”