Youth Flag Football Coaching - Formulating a Plan
My philosophy is similar, I want all the kids to have fun and be able to try the different positions. I spoke at length with my assistant coach and it turns out his ideas are not that different from mine. We have 11 kids on the team and there are only 2 of them that have limited skills (both are a whole year younger too). His idea was more geared towards them, having them specialize in something simpler that they can do well. It will give them more satisfaction due to more success and let them concentrate on a small number of tasks (the other kids being older and more proficient can handle many more assignments). We'll incorporate them in all the other aspects of practice of course, but we'll give them some easy plays designed just for them (we'll call it our secret plays or something, they'll love it). We've also found that only 3-4 kids really want to play qb, so that problem solved itself.
One of the big problems we encountered during the game is that on every play, everyone is open and wants the ball. My assistant calls the plays in the huddle on offense and he said it was really bothering him as he was bombarded by chatter while he's trying to call the play. It was the same last season and I witnessed it in the huddle too. At tonight's practice I'm going to institute my "no asking for the ball plan." Any player who asks for the ball, tells us he was open, why don't you pass it to me, etc., will be taken out of the game for a minimum of two plays. I'm going to implement it our scrimmage and hopefully it will eliminate the problem.
It got so bad that one of our players was moping and crying on the sideline because he wanted the ball. Of course he caught several passes during the game but he wanted more. We have a lot of kids that can catch and run well, plus we move the ball quickly downfield so we have fewer possessions to spread around. Some players only get one touch (I make sure everyone gets at least one), while if someone gets 3-4 that's a lot on our team. It's a good problem to have so many capable players but some of my kids need to be broken of this whining habit.
Something that has helped us is having one of our team parents track ball touches, passes, etc. for b-ball and soccer. In between subs, I can do a quick check to see who isn't getting the ball or who needs to take more shots and make changes on the fly during a game. The stats also help the kids and parents see the real deal, memories run short after the game is over. Football is a different animal than b-ball and soccer, but there might be some stats that would be worth tracking.
There are 6 teams in our league and we've played 4 of them already. We're the only one that runs a zone defense, all the others run man-to-man. We've given up no more than one touchdown in each game (actually we've given up exactly one td each game). Against our opponents we've scored 5, 3, 4 and 2 tds. I feel that the zone is easy to understand for them although man defense is a little easier. You can go with either but I really prefer zone.
Either way you have to focus on two things in practice: Pulling flags and swarming to the ball. Missed flags are the biggest reason teams give up tds. The second reason is that once a flag is missed the other kids are standing around watching (because they expected the other player to pull his flag). We spend no less than 15 minutes each practice on defense (far more than anyone else). I run the same flag football drills for defense. They consist of:
Movement drills: I form two lines and have them bend their knees and keep their arms up and move side to side, backpedal some, etc. Same as in bball. During this drill I'll sometimes hold a ball in my hand and after a while yell swarm! Then all the kids have to run to the ball. I'll watch for stragglers and call them out. I used to do this far more last year but with all the same players they don't need to do the swarm drill too much.
Flag pulling: I form a line of kids, each with a flag on and a ball. One kid (the defender) stands inside a rectangle and waits. The line goes one by one versus the defender. They have to stay in the rectangle. After the line completes then I switch defenders, each kid gets a turn. There are several things to look for during this drill. Make sure the offensive guy is not flag guarding or anything. For the defender the hardest thing to do is get positioning. Let me explain. The defender should be trying to do two things 1) pull the flag (obvious) but 2) slow down the runner. Sometimes you get what I call the "matador" pull, kind of like when a matador whips his cape past the bull. If you pull flags like a matador then if you miss he's still going full speed. So I'll vary the flag pulling drill without flags. The defender simply has to move in front of the runner and slow him down. That way the defender can focus on blocking him instead of the flags.
I'm rewriting a bunch of my plays and refocusing my offense this week. My overall philosophy is to keep the passes very short and run. That's not changing. What I need to change is to have more misdirection and incorporate some of things that worked better and some of the things that didn't work. When you drop back a 7-8 year old and have him throw downfield you get too many incomplete's and interception's. Completion percentages are too low to be worth it. Sure we'll chuck it sometimes we get a good matchup but not often.
First off we line up in the same formation every play. Other teams use all kinds of formations but my team never changes. We had two wideout's, two slot's a center and a qb. Many of the teams use kids in the backfield as running backs but not us. It's too easy to see the run coming. We run end around's and delay's to the center. Some will load up a side which is an obvious charade for a run to the open side, not us. We create open sides by clearing out receivers on their routes.
Our best play has been our center drag. It's very basic. The center snaps the ball and takes two steps forward and then turns 90 degrees. The qb takes the snap and begins running parallel to the line of scrimmage. The center has to keep pace with the qb. They run about 5-7 yards sideways and the qb tosses the ball to the center. It's a pass on the run but it's like a 3 yard pass so it's near impossible to miss. The center catches it on the run which is key because he takes his momentum and keeps going. The receivers on the side of the play have routes that clear them out of the area. Therefore when the center gets there he only has to beat his man in a sprint. We call this without fail on all short yardage plays.
I'm not going to go into all my plays but that illustrates how we keep it simple and easy but are very effective. We have variations off that play too like a fake end around that precedes the center drag and a play that begins as a center drag then reverses direction with the slot receiver for a slot drag going the other way. Also, I found that teams began keying on our end around (our basic run) so I'm putting a fake end around on several other plays so the defense will have lots of things to look at.
I believe strongly that misdirection and isolation is the way to go for offense. I want to put the ball into my players hands and have them running downfield. Good things happen when your kid is carrying the ball full speed. Incomplete passes and especially interceptions are very bad things so we design plays to minimize that.
Taking a step back and looking at some things other teams did against us:
One team did a double reverse. The first time they did it the kids ran into each other and the one who got the second handoff busted his lip and began crying. They lost yards. They ran it again later and it gained a few yards but my guys stayed home. I feel like the double reverse is a very risky play because if it works well it could gain big but with 7-8 year olds, you're asking a lot (several handoffs while running).
Another team had two halfbacks behind the qb in a pro formation. They faked a handoff to the first rb and gave to the second one the other way. This one worked against us because my LB's both bit on the fake. But once my kids saw it, it didn't work again.
Other teams run end around's like we do and it only works (against us) when you have an exceptional runner who is very fast and can make people miss. Last game they gave the handoff on an end around and the kid took it and immediately went back the other way. This worked because we over-pursued it. A few games ago with little time left I placed my defense in a prevent zone and the other team ran the end around. They gave it to their best kid and because he had time to turn the corner (we were too far back) and get to full speed it was almost a td if we didn't save it with a timely flag pull. Lesson learned was to keep defenders at the line of scrimmage.
As for passing, don't expect that the kids will run patterns with any sort of consistency. Your well drawn up play will look like shambles in about 5 seconds. That's why we try to isolate a receiver so even if he alters his pattern he should be by himself with only one defender. Also that's why we stick to very short passes mostly. I say mostly because we have 2 kids who can throw it very far and maybe 3-4 kids who can possibly catch a long pass. We'll sometimes see a favorable matchup with one of our deep threat receivers and send him long but the catch ratio is still low even when the ball nails him in the numbers. Of course it's always fun to hook up on a bomb.
I have drawn up all the plays on paper, two to a page, front and back. During the huddle I kneel with the play in hand facing away from the line of scrimmage. All the kids in the huddle are facing the line of scrimmage. I point to each position and call out a kids name so that they can visualize which position and direction they'll be running while looking at the play. I think this makes it easier for them to understand where they are and which way to run.
One of my assistants had my plays laminated which seemed like overkill at the time but during one rainy game I'm glad he did it. My loose pieces of paper with notes I like to keep fell apart and was worthless within minutes. But the laminated plays were as good as new.
I had all my plays on 4 sheets of paper, I used both sides, two plays each side. On each side I simply had the left and right version of the play, they were essentially the same. One of my goals was to keep the number of plays to a minimum to avoid overwhelming my players. Also, I numbered the plays and wrote them on the page in large numerals. I didn't have them all memorized but I knew that if I wanted one of my basic plays I knew what the number was. Pre-scripting your plays before the game helps to cut down on wasted time in the huddle.
I'll highlight what really worked on offense:
In the huddle I knelt down facing the line of scrimmage. I had all the kids stand behind me such that they were also facing the line of scrimmage. I'd hold up the play towards the line of scrimmage such that they could all see it over my shoulder. Then I pointed to each position and named the kid who'd run it. I tended to keep kids in the same position from play to play and that helped them. I'd usually highlight certain things.
The other thing that really worked well was when my quarterback dragged (or rolled) along the line of scrimmage. The reason it works is because the defense usually places 1-2 kids over the center and dragging leaves them trailing behind the play. If the qb just takes the snap and stands there then he has to contend with those kids in his face and has to throw around them. Also, when the qb drags with the receiver it shortens the distance of the throw. Most of our passes are under 5 yards.
The final thing that really helped our offense this week was an emphasis on proper patterns. We had gotten to a point of assuming everyone knew how far and how to run each pattern. In reality we were getting 11 different versions of the same pattern from 11 kids. So we drilled them and instructed them in patterns over and over. ALSO, and most importantly, for our drag plays and shuffle passes, we instructed them to only run 1-2 steps beyond the line of scrimmage. Throughout the season our kids were running them further and further until it was finally like a 10 yard pass, not at all what we intended. That little 2 step drag play was magical, and we ran it with the center and slot guys.
You should only have a few pass plays. Post, flag, down and in and hook. I'd line them up in a few lines and have them run them over and over. Do it without throwing them the ball. Specify exactly the distance and where to cut. Use cones or something on the field to help them run it a few times then take it away so they can run it without it. On your playbook you might even want to write the name of the pattern next to the play for double emphasis in the huddle. Since your team is new you might want to spend more than 10 minutes a practice for now. And during the game, the patterns will vary quite a bit, they are only 7-8. It's just a matter of being familiar and repetition.
One of the biggest problems you will probably encounter is everyone wanting the ball or to play a certain position. During games and practice this can be a killer as it wastes a lot of time. I was forced to implement a simple rule. If you ask/ complain/ etc. during the huddle or game you immediately have to sit out for 2 plays. It sounds harsh but the problem was instantly cleared up. I enforced it more in practice so I didn't have to during the games. I did however tell the players that they could ask me anything they wanted at the end of practice or the end of games. That was my time to discuss anything they wanted like getting the ball or playing a certain position.
Playing everyone at quarterback in one game I think is a huge mistake. I'd stick to your best 2 and rotate in 1-2 others for some handoffs and such. You can make it such that all players will eventually get to play quarterback during the season, but rotating everyone in one game is crazy.
To avoid throwing a lot of interceptions at the younger age groups make sure you design your pass plays with short routes, usually 2-3 yards. You get your receiver isolated by moving the qb down the line of scrimmage with the receiver running in tandem. I teach them to "push" the ball to the receiver. The "push" is like a shuffle pass not an overhand throw. Of course we throw regular passes too but those are much less often and usually only after we've sucked the defense in with all our short passes and runs. Pocket passing is just a bad idea at the younger age levels.
I only had two plays where the qb had more than one option to throw to and even on those plays I'd tell them who to watch for. In practice there were a few times where the qb had to improvise when the play went the wrong way. We strongly complimented our guys when they did that, taking things into their own hands.
As for tracking who got how many touches, I can tell you what I did. My goal, as stated was simply to make sure every kid got >= one touch per game. Some kids would get more, some less. I didn't write it down or really need to as I could remember who got a chance. This may not work for you so you may want to recruit someone to track ball touches for you. You also want to decide before the season what constitutes a touch. This may sound silly but it will stop a lot of problems with your players and their parents before they get started. As for who plays qb, I gave them all chances in practice. In theory I wanted many of them to get a chance in the game. In execution I ended up playing 2 kids a majority of the time and would work in maybe two others towards the end of the half's.
To avoid having to move the players around to different positions in order to get them ball touches create similar plays for every position and leave the players in the same position.
I color coded my plays so I have Red/Yellow for more complicated pass plays, Red/Blue for the more complicated run plays. Also color coded the easy runs/passes so I can adjust on the fly depending upon who I have at QB, receiver, etc.
The trick in flag football (at this age) is to keep the kids happy with ball touches. I've designed a few offensive plays just for my best QB, best runner and best receiver. When I allow some of the weaker QB's to play and they don't move the ball, I can go to those plays which usually work. This keeps me from constantly using my best QB over and over.
As for switching players my system is very simple and effective. I divide my team into two groups evenly. In the first half one group plays offense and the other group plays defense. In the second half they switch so now the offensive group plays defense and the defensive group plays offense. That way everyone gets approximately the same time on offense and defense and I don't have to worry about subbing in and out. I make sure that each group has a mixture of players that have strengths and weaknesses spread out so that both groups are equally capable. When the numbers are not equal I still split them but then make up the difference from the group on the sideline. So since we're 6-on-6 and lets say I have 9 show up I split them 5 and 4. When my group of 4 is on the field I pull 2 from the group on the sideline for that series, trying to mix it up.
You have to try to work it to every kid and as long as you're moving the ball with runs and short passes, everyone should be able to get it. I admit that in certain downs and situations I'll make sure to get the ball to a key player but in other situations I make sure a not so great player gets the ball. Example: Start of game, 1st down at our own 5. I'll run a play to someone I know can do well and he goes the length of the field getting stopped just short of the goal line. Now it's 1st and goal at the 2 yard line. Here's a perfect chance to let one of my kids who doesn't have the super speed or catching ability to make an easy TD. I'll call a short 2 yard drag to him and he scores and then talks about that touchdown for the rest of the season like he won the Super Bowl.
Basic Practice Plan and Drills
My practices have evolved as the team has become more focused and I work on things I see need attention during the games. I'll give you the outline from my last practice first. I always write it down as its easy to lose track of what you want to do while you're in the middle of it.
5 minutes - movement drills. I use a large square say 20 yards by 20 yards. The kids line up. They sprint to the first corner, then sidestep left to the next corner, backpedal to the next corner and finally sidestep right to where they began. We might do this twice.
15 minutes - flag pulling. I use a rectangle about 10 yards wide and 20 yards long. At one short end I line everyone up with a flag and a ball. At the other short end stands a defender. One by one they have to try to run past the defender and cross the line. They cannot step out of bounds. If the defender forces them to slow down significantly, pulls their flag or they step out of bounds he wins. If not the ball carrier wins. I stand behind the defender and compliment or correct him on just about every flag pull. Usually I can run this through twice with 11 guys. Sometimes I'll have them just use positioning (no flag pulling) one time, asking them to merely impede the runner so he has to slow down or hopefully stop.
10 minutes - patterns. We run through all the patterns in the playbook. I emphasize distance and where they should cut and end up. We go over and over the few patterns until I feel confident they have it down.
10 minutes - patterns with passing/ catching. Same thing as above but we have a kid throwing the ball to them. Here we're more focused on the short 1-2 yard drags and crosses and the qb rolling with the receiver as that's what we mainly run in the games.
10 minutes - offensive plays. We run through the plays with no defense. I'll call the plays in a huddle and they execute just like in a game situation. I try to go at game speed since we only have 30 seconds to get the play off.
10+ minutes - scrimmage. If numbers are uneven I grab an older brother or two (there are usually a few hanging around the field) and have them play defense.
As I mentioned my practices have evolved as my team understands many things now they didn't at the start of the season. I'll give you some other drills I think helped earlier and even last year. First off I like to start with drills they can do singularly or one-on-one. Then I move to drills that require more participation but not all the moving parts. Towards the end of practice I like to put it all together. I really like scrimmages for any team but especially one you're trying to teach and learn about. Things will become obvious when you scrimmage so do at least 15-20 minutes for the first few practices.
Catching and throwing one-on-one. Start them close and work with them on technique.
Defensive swarming. Preach this in all scrimmages over and over. Call out the ones who don't do it and congratulate the ones that go all the way across the field even if they never end up in the play. I ran a little drill where I'd stand in front of them with a ball and they'd all backpedal, sidestep, etc. on my command. Then suddenly I'd yell swarm and they'd all chase after the ball (don't throw it or you'll get a pileup). After you yell swarm try to watch for stragglers and call them out.
Coverage drills. Funny I haven't run one of these all year but they seemed so important last year. Basically teaching man-to-man coverage. You can work this several ways but having a qb and receiver and one or two cover guys is a good one.
Defensive theory. I lecture on zone, staying home, angles of pursuit. I'll set the kids up in positions and have them stand there and ask/ tell them what to do in various situations. Get them to thinking about where to go and what to do.
Center/ qb exchange. Had all kids work on this. We're directly under center but if you run shotgun you're going to want to work on this.
Handoff's. Don't assume this will go smoothly. Practice over and over the exchange. You have to tell the qb where to put the ball and how to turn, how the runner should clutch the ball. I want my end around to go full speed. When we don't practice this they get cautious and slow or end up dropping the ball. When that end around hits full speed it's great. When it comes slow it's easier for the defense to anticipate and get it. And a fumbled ball is a loss of down, never a good thing.
Do you have assistants in practice? I had two although with their schedules I usually only had one show up. We'd divide the kids into smaller groups so they all got a lot more reps during the practice drills. I think this kept them more interested in the practice. Also, I think if you have a fun attitude you can make it fun for them. But I do agree that football drills at least the ones I did weren't like the fun games we'd do in soccer for instance.
The toughest challenge will be getting everything crammed in a one hour practice. In the early season practices, I would split my kids up into 3 groups and have my assistant plus another dad help. One group would be running pass routes, another group doing a flag pulling drill and another group working on handoffs/pitches. Working on the fundamentals in each group. I'd switch the groups every 10 minutes.
Swarm drill for about 5 minutes. I'd put on several flag belts and act as QB facing the kids. When I pointed the football left, they moved left, right - they moved right, act like pass - they yelled "PASS" and moved back, if I tucked the ball and started to run - I'd yell SWARM and look to make sure all the kids were swarming me and grabbing flags. This was an idea from Orange that really worked great. The more you emphasize this concept, the better.
15 minutes of two separate groups, one on offense, one on defense. Half throttle. Switched them 1/2 way through. Just running through plays on offense and having my assistant working on defensive formation, rushing, throwing the ball to certain zones or running to see how they stopped the run.
10 min scrimmage.
After a few practices, I got a feel for what we needed to work on. Spending a good chunk of time on flag pulling is a key.
As for the most fun, I ask my kids this throughout the year. They almost universally say they love scrimmaging. I try to get in at least 10 minutes of scrimmage each practice.
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