Dave Cisar on Coaching Youth Football

As preseason practice gets underway, signaling the start of another season of youth football, I thought I should get some advice from an expert to pass along. One coach I enjoy reading is Dave Cisar, who runs winningyouthfootball.com, a website that is part of a larger enterprise that includes instructional books, DVDs and in-person clinics for youth football coaches. Based in Lincoln, NE, Cisar travels coast to coast, teaching coaches his winning method.

He began coaching youth football in 1986. Like most of us, he started by volunteering to help out on a team that needed coaches – in his case, the team of a co-worker’s son. Since then he has coached many hundreds of boys and helped out quite a few coaches too. He receives countless emails from guys thrust into the position of running a football team. He says many of them want to know how they should be spending their practice time.

“I respond by letting them know what they shouldn’t be spending their time on,” he says. “Teams that are successful don’t waste a lot of time on conditioning. And they don’t invest a lot of time on full-scale team scrimmaging.” He believes that using up practice time on stretching and calisthenics is unproductive.

Instead, he focuses on football-related activities and conditions his players by having them sprint whenever possible – to and from water breaks, on and off the field during play drills, from the front to the back of the line during technique drills.  ”That way the boys will be engaged and they’ll give their full effort,” he says, adding that if practice ends with long sprints the players tend to save up some energy for this dreaded exercise.

He stresses the importance of fundamentals. “The teams that block and tackle the best win the game,” he says, noting that the players who master those basics are well prepared for moving onto their high school teams. Coaches at that level, he says, aren’t looking for mastery of particular positions, though some parents believe their sons stand a better chance of making the high school team if they’ve specialized at one spot.

“They need to be able to block and tackle and have a passion for the game,” he says. “The high school coaches can train them on the fundamentals of a position. What they want are kids who are excited and passionate.”

He makes clear to parents during the first half hour of the first practice session that they cannot talk to him about what position their son plays, and they can’t ask about playing time. He ensures them that kids who show up for practice and try hard will get into at least 16 plays per game, no matter their skill level. Some kids will get more time, based on talent, but nobody who shows a commitment just sits on the bench for most of the game.

As for the key to his success, he says it’s a matter of using time effectively and keeping things simple. “Coaches will call and email me during the season and ask why they’re not successful,” he says. “The first thing I ask is how many plays are you running. They’ll say 50 or 60. I say why do you have so many? They’re looking to add plays, and I tell them they need to cut 52.”

His advice: “Don’t try to overthink yourself. It all comes down to the fundamentals and efficient use of time. You have to be extraordinary at the ordinary.” Getting too fancy or complicated with your schemes undermines your efforts. He also says it’s important to spend just as much time preparing your defense as you spend on your offense.

Finally, he feels that you have to take a positive approach. “I always talk about the fact that you can have fun and teach fundamentals and you can be good sports and play all your kids and still win,” he says. Creating a bootcamp atmosphere is not the way to be successful. “You don’t have to run the kids into the ground. Fun is your friend and not your enemy.”





How to Improve Preseason Practice

By now your players have picked up their equipment and you might even have held a few practices. You’re getting to know your players, trying to figure who fits where in your offense and defense. It’s an exciting time, when you’re finally able to start implementing the ideas you’ve been cooking up since the season ended last year.

A strong preseason with productive practices can have a lot to do with the success you have during the season, so I’ve gathered some advice from top youth football coaches who post their thoughts online.

To get started, here’s a list of the basics from Keith Coburn on Yahoo! Voices. Nothing surprising here, but the list ensures you’ve got all the necessities covered. His advice about building a staff of like-minded coaches is worth heeding. Sometimes we have to take whomever volunteers to help out, but when the coaches share goals and outlooks, life is much easier for everyone.

One of your goals in preseason practice is getting your kids into playing shape. Here’s a video that provides a smart way of thinking about conditioning. As the coach, David Oden, suggests, use the first couple of practices to assess the shape your kids are in. If they’ve been couch potatoes all summer, you might have some work to do. His main point: be patient. The hot summer days and evenings take their toll; don’t feel you have to achieve your team fitness goals in a week or two.

I found this post on coachparker.org, a great site for football coaches looking for ideas and drills to help them lead their teams. In this article, the coach covers what he believes are the top 10 preseason practice mistakes. If there’s a theme that runs through most of the mistakes it’s pace – keep things moving along and keep your players moving and engaged.

Whatever plan you use, the key is having a plan. For the season and for each practice. Taking the time to organize your practice will keep the players interested and make every session more productive. Kids get bored quickly so keep them moving. Have a great season!



Are Your Expectations Realistic?

As pre-season practice gets under way, most coaches send an email to the parents of their players to state their expectations. That way there are no misunderstandings when the games begin. Parents and players can’t cry foul if the head coach follows through on the approach and policy he has set forth at the start. It’s a good idea.

This coach, however, takes things a bit too far. OK, way too far. His attitude makes the average Marine drill sergeant look like a softy. His demand that his eight-year-old players demonstrate “killer instinct” is almost comical – unless your kid ends up on his team. Seven of the kids who did quit the team, apparently through their parents urging after receiving the email.

Truth is, this email is the exception, not the rule, at least in my experience. But football coaches, even at the youth level, do seem to feel more compelled than those in other sports to take a task-masterly approach.

I think that style stems partly from the nature of the game. You’re preparing your players to take on other boys in a physical contest, one in which there is greater risk of injury than in most other youth sports. They need to push and shove and tackle the players on the opposing team. Therefore, they need to be prepared physically and mentally to gain the confidence to meet the challenge, even if you don’t put great emphasis on winning.

Still, as one parent points out about the email above, the coach mentions the word ‘fun’ only once. Building mental and physical toughness is a valid goal, but it needn’t be done by creating a boot camp atmosphere for a team of little kids. There’s no quicker way to kill the joy of the game for the kids, and soon signups will drop off.

I’ve found through the years that the dictatorial approach is taken most often by coaches who are either egotists or insecure about their ability to handle the job. The egotists (who often are insecure as well) imitate the stereotype of the tough coaches they’ve seen on TV or read about in the media or maybe one who helmed their own team in high school. They want to be seen as tough in the same way because that gruff attitude usually inspires deference in players, parents and even opponents.

Those who don’t know if they really know what they’re doing adopt that style as a way to discourage challenges to their authority. They trot out the usual tough-guy cliches to communicate a philosophy that says, in essence, my way or the highway.

But pro, college and even high school coaches are in an entirely different situation. Coaching young kids is a whole different ballgame, and taking that tone usually just means the kids have far less fun playing the game and really don’t learn much other than to stay out of the coach’s doghouse. They might play hard, but not out of a sense of passion but out of fear of getting yelled at in front of their teammates.

As we begin practice for the upcoming youth football season, I hope that the Vince Lombardi wannabes are few and far between. What these guys don’t get is that Lombardi wasn’t just a whip-cracker. He said that he wanted his players to know he had their best interests at heart. He’d be tough on them at times, but not arbitrarily and not to boost his own ego. He’d do it to help them succeed on the field and in their lives. He instilled a lot trust among his players. Without that trust and that sincere interest in their welfare, Lombardi would have been little more than a bully.

Health Guidelines for Summer Practices

It’s hard to believe that the summer sports seasons are beginning to wind down already. Didn’t we just get started? But we now have fall sports to look forward to, and practices are underway in a lot of places throughout the country.

And in many of those places, the temperatures are reaching the 90s nearly every day. That means players – and coaches – need to be cautious to avoid heat-related health risks. Especially in sports like football, with players wearing a lot of heavy equipment, the risks are higher than you might realize.

At these practices, kids are vying for positions, hoping to land starting roles, playing to catch the coaches’ eyes. They’re giving it all they’ve got while trying to prove they’re tough: “Drinks? We don’t need no stinking drinks.” “Cool down in a shady spot? No way. I’m ready for the next drill.”

As coaches, we need to observe how they’re feeling and take a common sense approach to planning and executing each practice. In a recent article, momsTEAM.com cited the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) Preseason Heat-Acclimatization guidelines for high school coaches. Coaches at the youth level should follow them as well. The keys are keeping the players hydrated and taking enough breaks to bring down body temps.

The article mentions that deaths from heat stroke among high school athletes has been rising steadily. Five in 2011! An alarming stat. This article from the LA Times explains the situation, the likely causes and the recommendations from health scientists.

Far more players will suffer other serious heat-related health concerns, many of which are not reported. USA Football offers these tips for preventing them. It’s been a very hot, very dry summer throughout much of the country, and there’s no relief in sight, and as coaches we’re responsible, of course, for the welfare of our players. Take a few minutes and check out the linked articles. We want our players battle-ready when the season begins, but we also want them to be in perfect health. There’s no reason they can’t be both.

Executing the Pitch

I recall having a quarterback one year at the pee-wee level who could run like crazy and was a natural leader, but he had trouble with handoffs and pitches. Maybe it was a concentration issue because despite a lot of reps, he’d invariably sail a pitch or two during a game, a couple of which we didn’t recover.

For him it might also have been a matter of rushing the pitch. He was a high-motor kid, especially when the game adrenaline flowed. We could break down in practice the steps involved in making a clean pitch to a running back and he’d do it well, but during games it was always an adventure.

Here’s a good video that explains the basics of making a pitch and how to teach it. One lesson the coach offers that is particularly important is the quarterback locking eyes with the back before releasing the ball. That split-second look should help focus both players and lead to a successful pitch. It also means that they’re in a good position to make the pitch. The back hasn’t run too far behind the qb, who then would pitch the ball behind the runner.

Another video in the same series from Expert Village explains the footwork a quarterback should use when making a pitch. If your qb can master the footwork, which isn’t particularly complicated, and work in unison with the back, the pitch should work well.

As with any type of football execution, the best teacher is repetition. Do it over and over until the kids are bored silly with it. Then do it a few more. In that way, maybe they’ll be able to execute it in game conditions.

As for my quarterback with the wild pitches, by the end of the season he was my running back.

Safer Tackling

With preseason practice beginning in the next few weeks for youth football teams across America, the media is chronicling parental worries about letting their sons play. It will be interesting to see if signups drop this season, as they’ve done for the past couple of years.

Fans of the youth football fear, and not without cause, that the game they love and the one they feel is important for boys to play is in danger of disappearing – or at least becoming unrecognizable under the weight of many new rules to improve safety.

That would be a significant loss to the world of youth sports. The uproar about concussions during the past year or so, however, has led to some positive changes that will improve player safety and might save the game.

Several equipment manufacturers have stepped up to offer helmets that protect our kids better than the previous models, and both coaches and parents are more cautious in caring for injuries and are better informed.

We’re also giving a much stronger focus to safe tackling, which is crucial to making real strides toward safety. Improper and dangerous techniques will lead to serious head impacts no matter what kind of equipment a kid is wearing.

USA Football, the official youth football development partner of the NFL and NFLPA, has been very active in leading the charge toward safer tackling, and will hold a series of clinics at four NFL team training facilities for coaches, parents and players. Collectively called the Protection Tour, the clinics, which will be held in the coming weeks at the camps of the Bears, Colts, 49ers and Giants.

Partnering with helmet maker Riddell, USA Football will offer workshops on proper equipment fitting as well as on recognizing and handling concussions. They also will show coaches how to teach safe tackling techniques that avoid head impact.

The linked article says that USA Football hopes to hold a clinic at every NFL training or practice facility, but will begin with the four this month. If you can’t find one near you, begin by checking out this video on safe tackling techniques featuring Thurmond Moore of the Tackling Academy.

By taking the safety issue seriously and investing time and money into lessening the danger for young players, we can save the game while keeping the kids from suffering traumatic brain injuries. Then we can focus on teaching them the skills they need to succeed – on the field and in life – as well as on watching them have fun.

Controlling Gaps on Defense

At any level of football, defense wins games, but it might be even more important at the youth level, where broken plays are so common, leading to easy touchdowns. The team that prevents big plays likely will win. That’s why defense is so important.

A key aspect of playing strong, consistent defense is controlling gaps – keeping your defensive players in the zone they’re assigned to protect. Of course, the offense is trying to clear your players out of the way and block your player from getting to the ball carrier.

This article from youthfootballonline.com offers good tips for winning that battle. The writer suggests engaging the blocker rather than trying to avoid him, which risks being shoved out of the way. Engaging the blocker requires getting past him, and to accomplish this task, the writer advises using the rip move.

Check out the article and the drill as well as the writer’s other suggestions for creating a sound defense that controls the gaps and the line of scrimmage. Keep your opponent out of the endzone by avoiding big plays and by stopping long drives and you stand a good chance of winning the game.

Limiting Contact During Practice

Youth football has become a tougher sell lately with all the news about concussions. After many years of steady growth, the participation numbers are starting to drop, and it’s easy to conclude that the trend won’t abate anytime soon. While the numbers from the past few years show the biggest drop at the high school level, the trickle-down effect is already noticeable in the leagues of younger players.

The rather understated response in the linked article from USA Football’s executive director Scott Hallenbeck is interesting: “My sense of it is, we’re going to see a drop in participation.” My sense is that he’s right.

Parents have become more vocal about their concerns, even ones like NFLer Kurt Warner, who drew support and abuse last month after publicly saying he’d prefer his sons not play the game. As we learn more about the long-term effects of concussions – as well as how common they are even at the youth level – parents have to weigh whether or not playing football is worth the risk.

Naturally, those of us who love the game and believe it can be a positive force in the lives of kids have watched with mixed emotions. No one, of course, wants to put kids at risk, but how can the game be saved? And how can we separate authoritative information about the “concussion crisis” from media hype and parental hysteria?

Safety improvements are quickly being made to the equipment, and coaches and parents are being trained to recognize concussion symptoms. There’s an energetic push led by USA Football to teach proper tackling techniques to avoid head impact. States have begun passing laws about how soon a player who suffers a concussion can return to play. Ohio probably will join the list this week.

To address the situation, Pop Warner, America’s biggest organization in youth football, announced a policy change yesterday that limits the contact allowed in practice. According to the linked article, from the New York Times, more than 285,000 kids, ranging in age from five to 15, play in Pop Warner leagues.

From what I’ve heard from coaches and parents this week, as well as what I’ve seen on Twitter and Facebook, the move is seen as a good one – a proactive step in the right direction. Those who have complained that it’s merely a token gesture probably don’t realize that studies have shown more than 60 percent of injuries in youth football occur during practice, perhaps because kids are less focused than they are while playing a game. Controlling contact in practice really can have positive results.

There’s no question that more needs to be done to make the game safer. But it’s reassuring to see this major organization acknowledge the situation, admit there’s a problem and take action to lessen it. Kudos to the folks at Pop Warner.

Should Your Son Play Football?

Concussions in youth sports. Every day there’s at least one article or blog post published about it. Last night, ABC television’s “Nightline” included a segment on the subject. If you have kids playing youth sports you’re probably growing more and more alarmed by the flood of coverage.

If you have boys playing youth football, you’re probably more alarmed than other parents because much of the press has focused on that sport. Of course, statistics show that football causes the most concussions. Amid the worry, parents seem to have divided into several camps: those who insist their boys play football, those who insist their boys cannot, and those who give grudging permission but really wish their sons would find a different sport.

The divisions have drawn the most media attention when represented by current and former NFL players. Retired quarterback Kurt Warner attracted both support and attacks by stating he preferred his boys play something else. Now Pittsburgh Steeler safety Troy Polamalu has told the media that he is fine with his boys playing football but adds that parents should not base their decision on his. He is not implying by giving permission to his kids that other parents should be comfortable doing the same.

In fact, in the article, posted on triblive.com, he makes a somewhat vague comment about feeling comfortable: “I don’t know if parents should feel comfortable, to be honest. It’s not the responsibility of the game to make anybody feel comfortable.”

I’m not sure exactly what he means. Is he implying that making the game safer is not our collective responsibility? That parents should remain uncomfortable because the game should remain a health hazard for their kids? Am I missing something?

Football, by its nature, always will remain a physical sport, and that’s not a bad thing. The physical demands of the game are part of its appeal. But ignoring the new information pouring in about the long-term effects of traumatic brain injuries and refusing to create and adopt safer equipment is beyond foolish. It’s unconscionable.

Even with rules and equipment in place to make the game safer, parents still will feel a little uncomfortable watching their kids get clobbered every so often. And maybe that’s what Polamalu means. I hope so.

Guys wear a football injury like a red badge of courage–we can’t help it. But let’s do what it takes to limit those badges to some broken fingers and skinned elbows. Life-long brain damage shouldn’t be on the menu.


Improve Safety with Proper Tackling Technique

At Football Coach Hub we’ve covered quite a bit of the latest news on the concussion issue facing youth football, adding our hues and cries to the general uproar about player safety.

Parents and coaches are worried, quite rightly, about the safety of the sport, especially as we learn more every day about the long-term effects of traumatic brain injuries. This article from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution sums up recent events and echoes the growing fears among parents about their kids signing up for football.

Better protective gear will help, and manufacturers are answering the call. We hear about advancements far more often these days than we heard for years. Better coaching will help too, taking time to teach young players how to execute safer techniques while still playing hard.

As covered by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Steelers and USA Football held a youth coaches clinic a couple of days ago in which the subject of concussions played a major role in the instruction. Coaches were taught how to recognize concussions and what to do when they occur. They also learned how to teach proper tackling techniques.

USA Football, the sport’s governing body, is a nonprofit organization and the self-described “official youth football development partner of the NFL and NFLPA.” According to the article, USA Football has created what it calls the Tackle Advisory Committee, tasked with teaching a safe approach to tackling.

The article quotes Ed Passino, Northeast regional manager for USA Football, on the committee’s goal: ”What we’re trying to do is to reteach tackling without the head. From when they start youth football, kids should be programmed to know that the head is not used as a weapon.” This video demonstrates how players should be taught to tackle, keeping their heads away from direct contact.

It’s well documented that at least 60% of serious injuries occur during practice, meaning that coaches can reduce the number of these injuries by creating safer practice plans. To that end, USA Football developed its “Levels of Contact” plan, recommending what type of (and how much) contact should be used during various practice drills. Check out this video for an explanation of how it works. You’ll find many other helpful videos on USA Football’s youtube channel.

We seem to be moving in a positive direction in youth football, taking meaningful steps toward making the game safer. Coaches have a responsibility to do everything possible to help reach that goal, and by teaching safe techniques and creating safe practice plans, we’ll be able to reduce the number of serious injuries, putting parents’ minds a little more at ease while keeping our kids safe and having fun.