By Johnny Mallatt
Grant Teaff, former head football coach at Baylor University and executive director of the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA), was approached at a football clinic once by a young coach who said that even though he was "just" a middle school football coach, he would like to talk to him.
Coach Teaff promptly replied to him, "Don't ever say that you’re ‘just’ a middle school coach. Everyone in God's eyes is important, and everyone who is a coach is important because you are working with young people on a daily basis. The level at which you coach is not important; it makes no difference. You are important to the game of football and the coaching profession."
These statements by Coach Teaff emphasize the important role that middle school coaches play in the lives of the young people they work with on a daily basis – on the field and in the classroom.
When organizing a middle school football program, the first priority should be to provide an opportunity for all athletes to learn the skills necessary to play football in a competitive setting. Middle school programs need to be founded on these sound principles – that will help to encourage players to develop a love for the game of football.
Coaches or other school leaders should never discourage players and cause them to drop out at this stage in their playing careers. Many young players develop at different stages. The player who some coaches cut or discourage as an eighth-grader may very well have developed into a great athlete if only given the opportunity to develop at his or her own rate. Michael Jordan was cut from his sophomore basketball team – thank goodness he was encouraged to try again.
Young players should be able to decide for themselves if the game of football is really something they want to play. It should be a positive experience if at all possible at this age level. A good middle school program football coach will always get everyone into the game at all costs – regardless of the score.
The game of football involves 22 different positions with offense and defense, plus special team positions. There are plenty of slots for all players to have some playing time. How much they play depends upon the skill level they have developed in practice. The intermediate-level football programs should not be used to eliminate unskilled individuals, but to foster encouragement to develop the skills needed by young athletes.
Well organized middle school programs should not be judged on win-loss records, but rather on teaching good attitudes; implanting character, fair play and good sportsmanship; and most importantly teaching young players to live up to their potential – no matter what it might be. If these principles are followed, numbers would increase in many high school football programs that have fewer players each year. A student in an algebra class may need longer than two semesters to learn the skills necessary to master the subject; the same may be true for some individuals in the sport of football.
Remember, everyone cannot be the star, but everyone can contribute in their own way to the overall program. A middle school coach can never make a great player out of a player who isn't potentially great, but he can make a great competitor out of anyone who wants to work hard enough. This, in turn, can make a man out of a boy, which means a great deal more than wins and losses. But sadly, this accomplishment is never published, and this is where the good middle school coach can find his greatest joy – in these “silent victories.”
The middle school program should not be used or thought of strictly as a feeder program for the high school varsity; the program must have its own unique identity in order to be totally successful in the eyes of its coaches and players. A middle school coach doesn't have to run a clone offense or defense that its district's high school team runs in order to prepare his young players for high school football. If the players can block and tackle correctly, it does not matter what offensive formations or defensive schemes are being used. What does matter is that the formations and schemes are run well and the young players understand the concepts being presented. If anything is to be coordinated between the high school program, it should be the terminology used and certain drills.
Football players at the middle school level are just like classroom students at that age – their attention span can be somewhat short. It is important to distribute the practice material over a shorter period of time. Remember, you do not have to have marathon practice sessions at this age to get your players to perform up to their potential.
Good habits and attitudes are still transferable at this age, so it is very important to develop them in all coaching (teaching) situations. Good habits can be ingrained through proper repetitive drilling. Attitudes are more emotional, but they can be shaped and honed on the practice field as well. Always remember to coach in a positive manner, the way any good middle school teacher would do in their classroom. Negative feedback at this age can be very detrimental, so be sure to direct it toward the product wanted and not directly at the young player.
Team goals should be emphasized more often than individual goals at this age. Middle school coaches, players and/or parents who set unrealistic individual goals expose themselves to failure. This, in turn, sets up the entire team and middle school program for failure. The emphasis of team goals at this age will help to avert the selfish individual syndrome that we see much too often in games we call team sports. Kids at the middle school level should have some measure of success each day at practice, as well as in the football games they play.
Joe Paterno, the highly successful football coach at Penn State University, once said, "There is victory for everyone in each football practice and game, because the final score doesn't always tell the whole story." A game is made up of many small victories and team sacrifices by courageous individuals. The untrained eye and mind of the average football fan never observes this, but the players and coaches know each time it takes place in practice or in the game.
The truly successful coaches at the middle school level are not always the ones who know all the X's and 0's, but rather those who know how to teach. All good coaches are good teachers. That is the special gift of dedicated middle school coaches – the ones who are more concerned with teaching and motivating than winning and losing.
One of the problems, however, is that good middle school coaches don't stay middle school coaches very long. They move to high school positions after developing solid middle school programs. Middle schools that are able to keep these type of coaches are very fortunate. There are many middle school coaches who remain middle school coaches because they love what they do, and enjoy working with young people at this stage in their lives.
We pay tribute to those middle school coaches – past and present – who have given of themselves in order to help middle school kids get the start they need in their playing careers as well as their lives. Remember, you are not "just" a middle school coach. Your level of football coaching is just as important as any coach who puts a whistle lanyard around his neck and coaches the game he loves.
About the Author: Johnny Mallatt is now retired after a 35-year football coaching career in Kansas. He coached at four middle schools before finishing his career at Baxter Springs (Kansas) High School and Galena (Kansas) High School. He is the author of "COACHING FOOTBALL’S WING-BONE OFFENSE," a football coaching book that was published in 1999 by Coaches Choice Publishing Company. He has also written numerous articles for coaching publications such as Coach & Athletic Director and Gridiron Strategies. He is a charter member of the Kansas Football Coaches Association.