Too Many Youth Coaches Miss The Key Word: Fun
By Keith Mills
As a football coach at the high school, college and NFL levels for 40 years, and a parent of one and possibly two more collegiate athletes, Jerry Rosburg is a solid source for what continues to be a mystifying part of the athletic culture: obsessed, self-absorbed and maniacal youth football coaches.
Last month, Rick Reilly of ESPN.com documented the story of a Pop Warner football coach from just outside Dallas, who sent an e-mail to his football team full of 8-year-olds, which included these quotes:
"My objectives are simple: We need to become better, tougher and more aggressive blockers, tackles and runners. … Tackle football isn't for everybody. It takes a certain mindset, an aggressive killer instinct if you will. … The summer camp sessions will be short, but intense. Pre-season conditioning will be intense. In-season practices will be intense. … Mental and physical toughness are also requirements. We must get tougher. … Players practice full throttle unless they are injured."
A killer instinct for 8-year-olds -- are you kidding?
The coach is 36-year-old Camron Miller of Frisco, Texas, a Dallas suburb. But he could be thousands of other pee-wee football coaches, who are so caught up in winning and the macho approach to football they have completely lost touch with what's important -- teaching the game the right way and allowing young players to thrive or fail at their own pace.
"It's my belief that one of the responsibilities of the coach is to make the game fun," Rosburg said. "Unfortunately, the coaches take the fun out the game. Youth football coaches should be judged by retention rate and not their won-lost record. If you have 100-percent retention, if everyone on your team comes out for football next year, you should be Coach of the Year. You might win nine games and never suffer defeat, [but] if you have a 50-percent retention rate, you should be fired. That's my opinion."
It is an opinion worth hearing, one based on a lifetime of playing, coaching and parenting not just at the highest level, but at its core level -- the youth level.
Rosburg is in his fifth year as the Ravens' special teams coordinator. He played high school and college football and has coached at every plateau. He and his wife, Sherry, have three children, who are outstanding athletes.
Megan Rosburg is a former all-state volleyball player at River Hill High in Clarksville and is now a 5-foot-9 sophomore starter at American University. Two years ago at River Hill, she was the Gatorade Maryland Player of the Year.
Jerad Rosburg is a former student at River Hill, who is one of the premier young hockey players in the country. He now lives in Ohio and plays defense for the Ohio Triple-A Junior Blue Jackets Under-18 hockey team, which is in the Elite Hockey League. A 5-foot-10, 160-pound defenseman, Jerad attended the 2012 USA Hockey Development Camp last July in Rochester, N.Y.
Margaret Rosburg is a seventh-grader at Folly Quarter Middle School, and plays for the 14U Metro-American club volleyball team.
Jerry Rosburg grew up in Fairmont, Minn., and went to Fairmont High, where he played football and was the beneficiary of a couple of outstanding high school coaches. Tom Mahoney and Joe Burns eventually picked Rosburg to play for Fairmont as a sophomore, despite his lack of size.
"I grew up in a small town and, obviously, the high school football coach is a very important person in town," Rosburg said. "I was one of those late bloomers. I enjoyed football as a kid, but I wasn't very big. When you get to high school football, it gets a little more serious, and I didn't play at all. I wasn't big enough and I wasn't good enough.
"Then, my sophomore year, there was a coach named Joe Burns. I remember his speech vividly. Here I am now. It's 40 years later and I still remember what he said. He said: 'I don't care how much hair you have under your arms. I'm looking for some football players, guys that enjoy the game, want to play hard.' And he gave everybody an opportunity, and I got to play. Next thing you know, I started growing and I played a lot."
He played so well, he got a scholarship to North Dakota State, and by the time he graduated in 1977, he was named to the Little All-America team as a linebacker.
One year later, his coaching career began at Shanley High School in Fargo, N.D.
"It was right down the street from where I went to college," Rosburg said. "I'm coaching the defense and there's 400 students in the school, a co-ed school grades nine through 12. And we have 100 kids out for the football team. That's incredible. Half the boys in the school are coming out for football. I went to a college where football was important, and we had a lot of success and a lot of fun.
"Now, I go to this high school where it's the same thing. I got to see guys play that may not be the best players, but they wanted to come out and they wanted to play. And our head coach, Bruce Larsen, involved everyone. You can only play so many guys and winning's important, but everybody has something to offer. We found roles for everybody, and it was a great lesson. It was a great lesson as a coach to try and teach as many kids the game as you can."
That experience left an imprint on Rosburg's coaching career. He started at Northern Michigan as an assistant coach and then went to Western Michigan, Cincinnati, Minnesota, Boston College, Notre Dame, the Cleveland Browns and the Atlanta Falcons. Now he's with the Ravens, and he shared his thoughts about an important part of society -- youth and high school football.
PressBox: If you were to address a group of Pop Warner or high school coaches about what's important in regard to what they do as amateur coaches, what would you say?
Jerry Rosburg: I actually had a chance to do that at the Under Armour spring combine, the Under Armour facility here in town. One thing I learned is that there are so many good people that want to help. Unfortunately, in football, a few bad apples give everyone a bad name. My message to the group was this: Football has so much to offer. It's great for fitness. It's great for character development. It's great for confidence and building team unity. It takes toughness, yes. But that's not the most important thing.
The most important thing when you're having an impact on kids going through their formative stages is that we make the sports fun. There's enough grind in football in the later years, and we've all experienced that grind part. We all understand that. It's my belief that one of the responsibilities of the coach is to make the game fun, even in high school. Unfortunately, a lot of coaches take the fun out of the game.
At the youth level, it's important at that age that you put the hook in them so they can get the benefit out of the game. Too often, what happens is we get an overzealous coach, not just football, but in any sport, and they forget what it's all about.
PB: Are the coaches receptive?
JR: Oh, yeah. You get a feel of that through their body language. I think more often than not, it's the parent in them coming out. We have to remind ourselves that these kids are somebody's children, and you have to treat them like your children. How would you want your child to be coached?
I had the great pleasure of meeting Fritz Shurmur, the former defensive coordinator of the Packers. I was coaching in college and we were doing a clinic together. The Packers were rolling, and their best player was Reggie White. I was interested in how he approached coaching his players, how he dealt with them at the professional level, because I had never coached at that level.
And what he said stuck with me. He said he's got Reggie White, who is probably the best defensive player in the game at that time. And he said the most important thing he does with Reggie is make sure he has some fun. He's a much better player when he has some fun. How about that? Fritz Shurmur says, "My job is to make sure Reggie White has some fun." Point is, this is Reggie White, a Hall of Famer and one of the best players to ever play this game. From Reggie all the way down to Pop Warner, one of the challenges for our coaches is we don't take the fun out of the game.
The NFL has started an initiative called Play 60 (a program designed to attack childhood obesity, which encourages kids to be active for at least 60 minutes a day, and to instruct coaches the proper way to teach football). Michael Strahan has a great commercial about passing the game back to the player. Really, that's what it's all about. It's not about the coaches. It's about the players. Let them have fun. Let them learn the game. Let them enjoy the game. There's enough footballs to go around for everybody.
The game is being taught by the Play 60 program to the coaches. So the NFL understands in conjunction with USA football that we need to teach not only the game, but how to teach the game. They're also teaching the ethics of the game, how to teach this technique the right way. We all want to win, but it's also about winning the right way -- doing things the proper way, and the healthy way.
I think there's real progress with the program. We're getting a lot of people who want to help, and parents can be such a big influence. Not that they need to affect what the coaches do, but in letting the kids know to enjoy the game. In my opinion, the parents and coaches that get it, their kids will go to their respective practices, then come home and play in the backyard because they like to play the game. It's a fun game.
PB: You're also a parent, with three youngsters who are outstanding athletes. One is already playing at the collegiate level. How do you avoid pushing your kids too hard or putting too much pressure on them?
JR: We're aware of that, and we try not to be one of those parents. There's nothing more agonizing than watching your child not do well in a game. But we've all seen it. Keep in mind you have to love them just as much when that game is over as we did when they scored the winning goal or had the winning spike.
When they get in the car, they want to know what your reaction is. We have one rule in our car: We love them unconditionally, whether they miss that shot or drop that pass. We need to make sure they understand that.
PB: Has the culture of winning changed that? Does this insatiable desire to win affect the message we're sending the kids?
JR: It has to be the same message, win or lose, to be honest. Don't take the fun out of the game. Don't take the focus off the player. Make it a complete experience. You can't make it a winning and losing experience. We all understand that winning is far more important than losing. It's no different if you're a Pop Warner player or an NFL player.
But perspective is important, especially at the young age. It's important we promote good, healthy habits and good, healthy competition -- doing the things the right way and doing things fairly. In the end, it's all going to come to light. In the end, if the coach is trying to win the game instead of teaching good life lessons to his players, it's going to come to light. There's a right way and a wrong way to do things, and the more we have good people doing things the right way, the better off we're going to be.
Issue 178: October 2012