When you coach youth sports, the game of football is a different animal. You have to get eleven kids all working in unison for a play to be effective—one missed block means an otherwise perfect play will blow up. Any parent with, for example, four kids, knows the challenge of getting them all on the same page. Coaching youth football means getting eleven on the same page.
Then there’s the execution of the fundamentals of the game itself. Unlike basketball or baseball, which are easily played on a pickup basis, most kids don’t walk onto their first football team having learned the basics of blocking or tackling.
If you imagine those challenges, add a few more, and then factor in having two-plus weeks to get your kids ready to play their very first tackle football game, then you have envisioned the life of a 5th-grade football coach.
Tim Steidl is one of four 5th-grade head coaches in the Lake Country Chiefs program. We should note that the coaches themselves are also new—they’ve followed their kids through the flag football program of grades 1-4, and now Coach Steidl and his colleagues will be taking their young charges onto the field Saturday afternoon for their first game.
“It’s just getting them up to speed on the game of football,” Coach Steidl said after practice on a beautiful Tuesday evening behind the Merton Public School, where parents gather to watch their kids practice. “We have to get them to understand the offense.”
Steidl added that while defenses can come along a little quicker, being based heavily on reactions and flowing to the ball, the task of getting the kids executing an offense properly is more painstaking. The Lake Country Chiefs’ kids have the aid of a wrist program, with their plays on them, to help remember offensive assignments on their roughly 15 plays.
The coaches don’t have the luxury of simply running plays with their limited practice time. They also have to give appropriate time to special teams, and to conditioning. The 5th-grade teams have about 23 kids per team, and those numbers can start to seem small if nicks and sprains start to add up. As nice as it would be to spend practice cerebrally studying an offense, the kids also need to be conditioned, for both team success and their own individual safety.
Safety is a high priority in how the game is taught at Lake Country, and it starts with properly teaching kids how to tackle. The 5th-grade coaches take on a responsibility unique at any level of football, in that they teach kids who have never formally tackled before.
“We preach keeping the head up and roll your hips through,” Steidl emphasized. He, and his colleagues, work on drilling into the kids, that they won’t get hurt if their head is kept up and they tackle cleanly. After years of watching NFL players set bad examples with horrid fundamentals, youth coaches finally have an ally in America’s most popular sports league, as the NFL has started to re-emphasize what all kids first learned at the youth level—don’t lead with the head.
The fifth-graders of the Lake Country Chiefs have embarked on an exciting part of their young lives in playing organized football, and they will take lessons that apply well beyond the field. “Football brings a lot of dynamics that are important in life,” Coach Steidl said. “It’s about team-building and character.”
No sport offers this as completely as football does. In basketball, one player can get his points with minimal help from his teammates. In baseball, a player does not rely on anyone else when he’s in the batter’s box. But a quarterback in football won’t get any glory if his five offensive lineman don’t block for him. The very nature of the sport itself imposes the lessons of humility and appreciation for grinding out tasks that are important, but not headline-grabbing.
“It’s the values that makes kids good members of a community,” Coach Steidl said. That’s what he, and his Lake Country Chiefs colleagues are trying to emphasize, it’s what makes their challenges worthwhile, as they get ready to lead their young fifth-graders onto the field for the first time on Saturday.