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Andy Ryland is USA Football’s senior manager of education and training, and he has been with USA Football since 2010. He has consulted with programs at every level of competition and is widely recognized as a foremost expert on developing the fundamentals necessary for a successful shoulder tackle.
Ryland is a former Penn State linebacker and member of the U.S. Men’s Rugby team, and he is a primary instructor in the Advanced Tackling System. Ryland previously served as a Division 1 American football coach as well as working as a fitness coach in rugby. During his tenure with USA Football, Ryland became the lead clinician for USA Football’s in-person coach training events including its Coaching Certification and Football Development Model. Key initiatives spearheaded by Ryland throughout his time at USA Football include developing the Heads Up Football Program, training its Master Trainer Coach Educators, and the development of the Rookie Tackle game type that serves the FDM.
Freelap USA: What are some of the biggest mistakes being made in the preparation of young football players, and what does the industry need to do to change this? Are we doing a good job of making football kid-friendly?
Andy Ryland: Traditionally, football is filled with adult values. Eleven (11) players working in martial unison, operating as the perfect team to execute a play. Displaying grit, resilience, and sacrifice for the team. These are all noble goals, but the problem is some of these kids are so young that they still believe superheroes are real and think if they visit New York City, they may see a Ninja Turtle.
Teaching sport and life skills at an age-appropriate level is so often overlooked. Coaches can be informed on proper age-specific physical development goals, use a good youth-centric playbook, and consider how skills may need to be adapted to fit young, developing bodies. However, we often forget how we communicate that curriculum. We apply our own adult glasses to the game and teach that way.If you are assigned a specific age group to coach, try to take a school teacher of that age/grade to lunch and pick their brains on how kids best learn, recommends @USAFootballMT. Click To Tweet
Appropriate messaging and teaching tools allow us to better convey these messages. I tell coaches all the time, if you are assigned a specific age group to coach, try to take a school teacher of that age/grade out to lunch and pick their brains on how kids best learn, and their focus levels, engagement tools, and best teaching practices for that group. We at USA Football call it, “Thinking, Feeling, Behaving.” Understanding those aspects of children certainly helps your teaching and just might keep you from pulling your hair out.
Freelap USA: How do you address developing the skill of tackling in young athletes while minimizing risks and potentially harmful collision forces in this population?
Andy Ryland: Within contact skills, technical models matter. Not all technical models are created equal. Over the years we have learned that certain techniques or coaching points put players in poor positions or utilize strike points that we now know better than to recommend. We absolutely need to get that part right.
When dealing with youth or developing athletes, we must be very aware that skills are underpinned by physical qualities and their development in an individual athlete. Coordination, spatial awareness, and strength can limit the positions players are able to successfully perform on the field. Coaches need to have a keen understanding that technique cannot be developed in isolation. We must address all these aspects when it comes to rapidly growing youngsters if we hope for them to master the sport skill.
Technique and physical development are probably easier for most coaches to buy into but we always encourage coaches to address the psychological area, too, as part of our Football Development Model (FDM). What emotional considerations must be given to teaching contact skill? Are players comfortable in contact before we move them to collision? Are the friction and personal space aspects something the player is comfortable with, or do we need to introduce them to this before teaching the actual skill?
Implementing different game types also helps greatly because we can introduce contact skills in a gradual manner. Flag football introduces basic football movements while developing the athlete’s physical qualities. It also introduces them to Prep for Contact drills like tumbling, crawling, and grappling, which prepares them for specific contact skills later. Playing a modified game that introduces blocking and defeating blocks while still pulling flags slows down the skill-learning load and allows young athletes to build a solid base of two contact skills before we formally introduce the skill of tackling into the game.
This model, for youth, provides a progressive learning curve instead of cognitively overloading them by having them try to learn everything at once while they are still exploring the game.
Freelap USA: How do you maximize the decision-making and sport IQ abilities of the young football player without overtly specializing in the game of football at an early age? What things do you do within practice and the game itself to improve these elements of performance?
Andy Ryland: To preface this, being a proponent of one thing doesn’t mean you throw out the other. Isolated drills certainly have a place in teaching.
As for developing decisions and IQ, an important aspect of our coach education is being able to control spaces, distances, and the techniques used through small-sided games and games-based coaching. This has an added benefit of making youth sports fun as young players are usually most engaged in this type of activity.
Small-sided games are a funny thing in football because each play is so short, things can still look like a drill. However, the key is to design activities that have enough context and opportunity for decision-making that they train these items. As with any contact sport, small-sided games and games-based learning do not mean simply scrimmaging the entire practice but rather creating environments to help train skills.Coaches who adopt a player-centered approach that leans more on guiding instead of telling really help players learn and discover concepts and solutions with the game, says @USAFootballMT. Click To Tweet
Outside of practice structure, the coaching methods used dictate much of what follows. Coaches who adopt a player-centered approach that leans more on guiding instead of telling really help players learn and discover concepts and solutions within the game. Question-based coaching, leading to guided discovery, is a terrific way to promote this. Instead of telling (or worse, yelling) about what went wrong, try some questions: What did you see? What were they trying to do to you? What did you do? What could you do better next time? Simple questions to promote reflections and little micro-debriefs help players learn.
Freelap USA: At what point do you see weightlifting entering the equation for a young football player? Are there any 1RM benchmarks of any kind at a particular age group?
Andy Ryland: The reality is that the football landscape as it exists already shapes training a great deal. For the youth athlete, it is driven by parents’ choice and is not team-oriented. Parents may take children to an outside facility if they have a desire to train. Training can be undertaken at any number of ages if it is proper training—who wouldn’t take their youngest to Jeremy Frisch’s facility?Children are not mini adults. They have unique needs and shouldn’t be following a shrunken college or high school program, says @USAFootballMT. Click To Tweet
We encourage parents to be educated and do their due diligence. Is it shiny or flashy and looks like what you see a college or NFL player doing on TV? Or do the coaches have a good background in youth development and working with children your child’s age? Remember, children are not mini adults. They have unique needs and shouldn’t be following a shrunken college or high school program.
High school, and sometimes middle school depending on the school’s setup and how it runs its PE/S&C, is really where S&C becomes part of an athlete’s “program.” Part of any good long-term athlete development (LTAD) program is to promote a healthy and physically active lifestyle for life. We hope athletes develop patterns and skills that can last a lifetime, so I’d say we generally take a “slow cooking” philosophy, even at this stage. USA Football’s FDM teaches athletic movement foundations first and adds speed, strength, and power as athletes become developmentally ready.
Strength and power are undoubtedly needed for high-level football performance, but I’m sure your readers know that even the highest-level coaches are having spirited debates over 1RM testing vs. tracking heavy 2’s and 3’s during the training block, squat jump and trap bar jumps vs. Olympic lifts, bilateral vs. unilateral, what is used as the primary lower body exercise, etc. With that said, instead of backing a specific set of exercises as key performance indicators (KPIs), we look more at supporting positive growth in the current training structures. We are huge supporters of having a certified S&C coach overseeing these programs in every high school, who are knowledgeable in the age group they work with and make sure kids undertake programs being implemented with best practices.
Freelap USA: What’s your take on the eventual specialization of the young athlete into football (or any other sport, for that matter)? What type of timetable do you have in regard to the number of sports played and what the emphasis might be throughout various stages of development: early adolescence, middle school, and high school?
Andy Ryland: This is another question where I think the existing sport structure here in the U.S. impacts the answer to a degree. We know that almost every athlete will specialize in college. Yes, there has been a rise in football/baseball players as quarterbacks in recent years, and there are a good number of players that do collegiate track early in their football career running the 60m or throwing heavy things. (Fun random trivia: Pro Football Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed is the record-holder for javelin at the University of Miami.)
If we know specialization is coming, do we need to force it earlier, such as in high school? On the flipside, for the non-blue-chip athlete, would they benefit by specializing earlier to gain that last bit of performance that propels them to play at the next level? Regardless of the situation, what we most hope for is that the choice to specialize is the athlete’s choice. Too often, it now happens because of adult pressures, be it coach, parent, or skill trainer.
At the younger levels, I think it is worth looking at LTAD models around the world and across different sports. There is a reason the earlier levels are littered with words like “discover,” “explore,” “sample,” and “play.” Kids at these ages need multiple stimuli to help develop general athleticism, coordination, and a wide range of movement skills.Sport sampling is so important because it’s very easy to settle on a favorite sport out of those you have tried. Place no limits on sports that children may explore, says @USAFootballMT. Click To Tweet
Touching again on the psychological side, children are often just trying to find what they enjoy and what sports fulfill them. Sport sampling is so important because it’s very easy to settle on a favorite sport out of those you have tried. Place no limit on sports that children may explore. This exploration should continue through high school.
Consider an athlete who plays football, soccer, and baseball growing up. Post-puberty, his body type is that of an offensive lineman. If he now, with this new size, wants to explore throwing for track and field or becoming a heavyweight wrestler, it’s not in good conscience that a coach should hold him back, as he may discover the sport he truly loves.