We should applaud anyone who volunteers to coach kindergarten football. It’s not easy, it’s a learn-as-you-go job, but it is rewarding and fun. In their own intangible ways, these kids appreciate what you’re doing for them. Most of them want to play football, and in some ways, they’re receptive to what we’re saying, because they want to learn the game beyond what they see on TV.
In my year-and-a-half of teaching kindergarten kids the game of football, I developed a few rules, based upon trial and error. Two quick notes before we continue: These are tidbits and observations, nothing more and nothing less. I will also use the term “tackle” to describe the act of pulling a flag, as this discussion focuses on flag football.
- Be a Coach with a Plan. Enter your season with a plan. Develop a few bullet points, or talking points, that you want your team to know by season’s end. These bullet points should focus on teaching the kids some of the fundamentals of playing football. Walk into your first meeting with the team thinking that if you can teach them a couple of things that will stick, your season will be a success. Accomplishing this, of course, requires repetition. My advice to the new coaches is to watch some YouTube videos on “coaching kindergarten flag football”. Some of these videos provide some very helpful drills a coach can run in practice, and they offer some simple plays to run. Some of these plays involve simple fakes, reverses, and some simple passes. This leads us to rule#2:
- Keep it simple. If this is your first season with a fresh group of youngsters, you’ll witness more organized teams pull better fakes and more complicated plays. I don’t know if they practice more often, or if they stick together for years, but in my experience, it’s best to keep all plays as simple as possible. Again, the best thing you can do, as a kindergarten coach, is teach them the basics of the game.
- We’re talking about practice. Some leagues require one mid-week practice. Anyone who has worked with kindergartners knows that coaches need to make their practices simple, active, and participatory. If you are a born leader with a commanding presence, and your team is largely comprised of good kids, they might behave 51% of the time, but those who enter into this with the idea that they can manage adults, and they have a well-behaved child, might be in for a shock when they try to corral 10-to-12 other peoples’ kids at the same time. They’re not bad kids, but they are kids, kindergarten aged kids. My advice is to try to diminish the chaos is try to develop drills and activities that don’t let the kids stand around idle. If there is some idle time for some of them, you might want to develop an activity until their turn arrives. (Some examples are jumping jacks and other forms of running in place. Whatever we do, we want to keep them moving.) If you’re lucky, another parent will volunteer to assist you. If that’s the case, divide the team into offense and defense for drills, then allow them to scrimmage. Drills are important, but they do create a line of kids with nothing to do until it’s their turn. Kids will also run around and pull each others’ flags off. A rule we incorporate is, if you pull someone’s flag, while playing around, you have to put it back on.
- No Juking. When game time rolls around, one of the most important rules we try to teach the kids is, “When you have the ball, don’t try to juke, shimmy, or shake your opponent.” Most kids want to flash the dreams they have of becoming an NFL running back, but at this level we need to teach them that the key to scoring more touchdowns is to run straightforward as much as possible. “How difficult it is for you to pull flags when someone is running past you?” we ask them. “You have one, quick chance right? The toughest flags to pull are those on someone who is running as fast as they can. When you run your fastest, it’s just as tough for the other team to tackle you.”
- Two hands. Two eyes. “When you catch the ball, use two hands and two eyes. Look the ball in.” We institute this rule to try to prevent them from running before they catch the ball. (Once they secure the catch, we can tell them to run, but this happens so infrequently that we should be able to get away with only preaching those first two steps for at least half the season.
- On defense, we teach the principle of “side integrity”. It might sound like a complex concept for kindergartners, but that might be why they like it. Our advice to our outside defenders (linebackers or corners), “Don’t let the ball carrier run outside of you, because if they get past you, it’s probably a touchdown.” We line our outside defenders outside the furthest player on the other team, and we stress that they not let the runner outside of them, even if they don’t make the tackle. 4b) “When the other team tries to block you inside, watch the ball, and the minute it moves outside your blocker, use a spin move on the blocker to get outside of them. (Some of the kids love the idea of a spin move, as we can tell them NFL players use it to get past blockers. It also seems tricky and an advanced concept to the kids, and some of them use it quite well. They are also quite proud when they do it well, regardless if they make the tackle.) “Even if you don’t make the tackle,” we tell them, “you need to push the runner inside to the rest of your teammates.”
- Safety. We established the position of Safety as the most important position on the defense. As a result, every kid on our team wanted to play Safety. (It might also have something to do with the idea that kids don’t like being blocked.) Based on the idea that this became the most prized position on defense, we developed a rule, whoever made the last “tackle” on the last play becomes the safety on the next play. Everyone wanted to be safety, so they strove to make the tackle. (This also ended the “Can I play safety?” yells that occurred after every play.)
- Back at Practice. When you’re done with the repetitious drills, in practice, let the kids have some flag football fueled fun. We call one of these games Sharks and Minnows. The shark(s) (two if you have over seven participants and one if you have less) start in the middle, and they try to pull the flags of all of the other players (the minnows). When a shark “tackles” a minnow that minnow then becomes a shark, and they join the shark(s) in trying to tackle the other minnows remaining, until there is only one minnow left. Other than teaching them how to pull flags, the game also teaches them the concept of boundaries, as we set up four-to-six cones to mark out of bounds.
- First game. Your first game will probably be a disaster, if you’re a new coach starting out with a bunch of newbies. It’s important that we do two things here. First, during the game, we need to compliment the players for every good play they make on the spot. A casual high five with a “there you go Joey!” will do wonders to lift that morale and self-esteem. When the game is over, remain enthusiastic, regardless of the outcome. You will learn some things about your team, and the game itself, after your first game, and you will need to make some necessary adjustments, but try to stick to the tenets of your game plan. At this level, if you’re in it to win it, you’re probably in it for the wrong reason.
- Plays. In this, my first season, I flirted with dropping the whole notion of plays, as they only invite more questions and different levels of chaos, but just handing the ball off on every play doesn’t teach kids the fundamentals of the game very well. On the subject of plays, I don’t think it will shock the potential volunteer to learn that if you plan to have a playbook, the goal should be to as simple as possible. I thought adding a simple reverse would fall under this heading, until I witnessed one in real time. (Picture a herd of wet cats attempting to run to the source and away from it at the same time.) I also added a pass play, in which the receiver runs a simple curl route. I thought this was a simple enough play, until I saw it play out live. (If the coach is lucky, they’ll have one player who can throw and one player who can catch. It’s the coach’s job to determine who can do this with some modicum of success.) The goal here is not necessarily to achieve a good play, a touchdown, or a win. We just want to put every player in a position to succeed, and if a player doesn’t throw or catch well, they might become demoralized. The coach should also prepare for the idea that most players won’t know what they’re supposed to do on any given play, so you’ll have to provide individual instructions to each player before the snap, and you’ll have to tell them where to stand. Again, the coach will have to accomplish this while trying to keep the referee happy by getting your players to the line and pulling off a play in time.
- Repetition. The kindergarten coach should prepare to repeat their very specific instructions throughout the season, and answer all questions that follow. The most popular question a coach will have to answer in each huddle is, “When do I get to I score a touchdown?” My pat response is, “That team over there is not going to let you score a touchdown. You have to go get it, when it’s your turn.” The reason we must continually express the idea of turns is that once they score a touchdown, they want to do it on every play, and as many times as we express the idea, most kindergarten-age children don’t fully comprehend the idea of taking turns, or if they do, they don’t prefer it.
- One voice in the huddle. “Coach! Coach! Coach!” is something every kindergarten, flag football coach will hear in a huddle, on just about every play. When the coach responds, they are likely to hear classic gems like, “I have a new shirt,” “I felt a raindrop,” or “I have a loose (or new) tooth.” Then there are the most common questions that follow every play, “When do I get the ball?” and “When do I get to score a touchdown?” The other comments I’ve heard are, “I don’t have a mouthpiece,” and “how come you’re not wearing sunglasses today?” Some of the kindergarten children repeat the shouts of “coach!” so often, while you’re attempting to tell the players involved in the next play how to run it that by the time we get to their question/comment, they forget what they wanted to ask/say. Once we complete that exercise, and get the kids to the line of scrimmage, ready to run the play in the time allotted by the referee, be prepared for them to forget everything you just said. Even when we keep it as simple as possible, by telling them to hand the ball off and run left, they often run right about 50% of the time. (Hint: point the direction of the play out to them. It’s okay to remind them at the line which way they should go, because chances are most of the kindergartners on the other side of the ball aren’t listening to you either.)
- “We can only have one voice in the huddle,” is something we say in the huddle. Some comply, but most forget these instructions when the next play rolls around. I’ve instructed them to keep all comments and questions related to football, but they’re kindergartners. One important note to add here is the patience and understanding a flag football coach must employ. Remind yourself, throughout the game, that they’re kindergarten kids. Most of them have the retention levels of a goldfish, and they can’t remember what we said five seconds ago.
- Injuries. Anytime kids are involved in a game that involves running, they will inevitably run into one another. Most volunteer coaches have no experience in such matters. The simplest thing to do is address each injury on the spot. Depending on the severity of the injury, of course, our goal should be to diffuse the minor injuries that occur in a game. Ask the injured player if they are okay, where they are hurt, and what happened. Most kids need nothing more than a couple plays off, and a drink of water, and they are okay. We might also need to address the fact that the other kid didn’t injure them on purpose. It was just a part of the game.
- Displays of Anger. The coach will also have to deal with the emotional aftermath of a child having their flag pulled. To us, this is part of the play. Person A runs down the field, person B pulls their flag, and the play is over. To the kindergarten mind, this is a humiliating condemnation of their athletic ability. They might regard it as an unfair part of the game, or the coach’s fault. At times, they will express their anger. When we experienced such a display, we simply moved on and let his parents handle the matter. As a voice of authority, on the field, the inclination might be to correct that child’s behavior in some way, but we have to remember that these are other people’s kids. It might embarrass us to have one of our team members act this way, but we have to respect our boundary while trying to keep control of the individual players. The best advice I provide the disappointed kids who don’t succeed on a play is to have a short-term memory. “Try your hardest on every play, but if you don’t succeed, employ a ‘next play’ mentality.” Also, if they gained any yards, focus them on that. This mindset requires repetition. I developed this short-term mindset after years of playing recreational sports. It worked well for me, but it’s often too complex for the disappointed, kindergarten mind to comprehend.
- Winning and Losing. We all have egos. All coaches want their game plan to work, and we want our coaching techniques to result in wins. A season and a half of kindergarten coaching have taught me to control what I can control. Let the players worry about winning and losing. We should also make sure we take turns giving the ball to each kid. Not only is that what they signed up for, but it maintains their focus. I try to compliment each player on their strength and ignore any weaknesses they might have. This keeps them happy, focused and interested. The most important ingredient is to try to keep it fun for the kids. Structure is vital, of course, but we need to institute a balance of fun and structure.
- Dealing with Kids. After dealing with these kids one hour a day, for six weeks, I now have profound respect for anyone who chooses a career that requires them to deal with kindergarten age children full-time. If, at one time, I considered my son’s teachers unreasonably strict, by instituting a level of structure to try to establish some level of order, I now empathize. “Could you take care of Johnny today? I can’t deal with Johnny today,” I heard one kindergarten teacher say to their assistant. I was shocked at the time, because I thought it meant the kindergarten teacher couldn’t control her class. I now have a couple of Johnnies that I only deal with for one hour a week, and if I could have one on-field assistant answer the questions, and tend to, just one of my Johnnies, I probably wouldn’t be writing this piece to voice my frustrations.