Guest Post – Bill Utsey

Please read and share this guest post from Bill Utsey, former football coach and athletic director in South Carolina, with his last position being Athletic Director for Greenville County Schools.


Turning the tide of diminishing participation numbers in high school football

Bill Utsey

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There is no doubt about the declining numbers of teenagers playing high school football. This decline is validated statistically by the National Federation of High Schools report published this year (lowest participation numbers in 19 years, a drop of some 30,000 participants… a 3% drop).  Recently Jim Baxter, a national high school recruiting analyst and the founder of the highly popular website promoting high school sports in South Carolina posted an article, “The Slow Demise of High School Football in South Carolina.”  The focus of the article placed much blame on the elimination of the “Eight Quarter” rule by the South Carolina High School League (SCHSL).

On the national scale many believe the research and media coverage of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and high concussion rates is the major cause affecting participation rates in high school football. Fear mongering of the safety risks in playing football have given our sport a negative perception in the eyes of many parents.

In addition to the CTE debate, there are other logical and substantiated reasons many authorities have discussed within our own coaching profession.  We need to find out for ourselves as to why kids are not coming out for football.  We coaches often talk about kids being “different today,” or “there are too many distractions and things for kids to do,” and “kids today don’t want to pay the upfront heavy effort price required to play football.”

Lots of talk, but let’s do our homework! Go online to read the opinions and findings of others with the key words, “Why high school football participation numbers are declining.”  Then start brainstorming ideas to address this growing concern. This article is a first attempt.  The objective is for you to acknowledge this problem exists, start the discussion and resolve to come up with realistic, doable solutions that you can put into action in each of your schools’ programs.

The purpose of this article will focus on what parts of this growing problem we coaches have control of and some suggested steps we may consider to turn the tide of diminishing numbers. Coaches, we have very little control over the SCHSL rules, the CTE debate or the media.  What we do have control over are things such as, but not limited to:  coaching style, coaching philosophy, practice planning and efficacy, methods and techniques, player relationships, and how we measure success.

A lot of thought has gone into the below suggested steps coaches may want to consider in making your football programs becoming of a positive experience and more worthy of the time and effort required of youngsters to play the game. These suggested steps are aimed at getting you to acknowledge the problem, make you think, and come up with your own ideas and plan of action to turn this tide.

STEP 1:  Focus on proactive measures that will result in making your programs worthy, meaningful, and more enjoyable for students in your school community.  Do your homework in the area of “Why do they play sports?”  Find out exactly what the researchers say that drives young teenagers to want to play sports. Then begin to focus on developing goals and plans of action that will draw them into your program.

Sidebar logic:  The number one reason young people give for playing high school sports is “To have fun.”  As coaches we know to be proficient in high school football requires practice and off-season conditioning that demands the hard work ethic, self-discipline and tough—sometimes painful—workouts and drills.  It is a rare teenager indeed that looks at these as “fun.”  Find a coach who has a player that came out for football to learn the “hard work ethic” even though that is one of the main life skills he will learn.

Today’s coach must find out how young people define fun.  Fun, to them, is enjoyment and satisfaction.  When young people are doing anything that satisfies their most powerful needs, they are having fun and experiencing enjoyment.  For teenagers their strongest needs are to feel cared for or wanted and to feel good about who they are—esteem (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). Coaches have significant control over these in how they run their practices and workouts and the expectations they set for their players.  More important is the coach showing his players how much he cares about them (“Kids won’t care unless they know you care!”). Is your program heavy in positive feedback and rewards and does your coaching style emulate compassion and empathy?  How about your skills in communicating, planning and organizing your year-round plan for your program? These will help significantly in cultivating in your players a culture of belief in your program and, more importantly, themselves.

Step 2: What is the mission of your program within your school and community? What do you believe your program provides as lessons for your players in the big picture of life? A written set of core beliefs and a mission statement will be the guiding basis for all decisions and actions you make as a coach. The key:  Do these items—mission statement, core beliefs—promote and encourage enjoyment, worthiness and purpose in all the experiences your players will endure by being in your program? Just so you know, these are seeds in developing and growing a culture in your program that will command commitment and dedication and promote enjoyment, worthiness, and fun (Did someone say, “Winning culture?” “Buying into the program?”).

STEP 3:  Make “High Participation Numbers” the number one goal of your program.  “What!” you say? Yes, make this the number one outcome measure of your success as a football coach. This is not a player goal or your team’s goals regarding winning or championships.  It is specifically for you and your coaches! “High participation numbers,” should be the ultimate measure of your success and where your energies, actions and decisions are focused!

Sidebar logic:  Is it easier to find 22 starters if you have 25 juniors and seniors or is easier if you have 45 to choose from?  Logic says that if you are getting high numbers out for your program you will be winning many more games and the statistics prove this.  Football teams with high numbers of juniors and seniors win significantly more games than those with few numbers—and they will likely win more championships! The higher your numbers, the more wins your teams will achieve. Do the research for yourself, but these are the facts of high numbers:

  • The higher the number of juniors and seniors, the higher the average age will be for your team,
  • The physical maturity of your players will be higher (a huge advantage for any team!),
  • The total time spent in your strength and conditioning program will be higher,
  • The total number of repetitions in practice and games will be higher.

Sidebar note: Joe Turbeville (5 state championships at 3 different schools), the first coach I worked for—who set me out on a path of success—had a favorite quote spoken often, “Numbers wins.”

High numbers has a synergistic effect upon your program.  Furthermore, if kids are coming out for your team in droves, then winning will take care of itself. Don’t forget that your leadership, organizational skills, ability to teach proper technique and strategy will be critical in capitalizing and energizing the advantage that high numbers will provide.  There are indeed some teams with high numbers and still do not produce a winning season, but these are few and far between.

Step 4:  Make as your second goal, “To provide a positive and meaningful experience to every player.”  You may word this and the above goal differently, but the meanings should be similar, keeping the end—high participation numbers—in mind.  This second goal goes hand in hand with the first goal. The bottom line with this objective is that if a kid is having a meaningful experience in your program—be he a starter or bench warmer—it will never cross his mind to quit the program. Furthermore, he will disseminate positivity and goodness about your program to his parents, friends and future players.

Sidebar logic:  As a coach, you work at the discretion of your principal and school board. However, if you make your players and their parents those who you really work FOR, you will never have to worry about your superiors or job security.  “If students are knocking the door down to be a part of your program, then you must be doing something right!” Your players are the best public relations and recruiting messages you will ever send out to your parents and community. Every day your kids go home and sit down at their supper table or at a breakfast table the next day with their parents and, invariably, mom or dad will ask, “What happened at practice?” or “What did the coach say after the game?”  Likewise, the same thing happens when your players interact with their peers every day.  This is not to mention the volumes that will be said on social media. If you are doing something “Right,” then the responses to their parents and interactions with their peers will have a positive and synergistic effect upon your program. When all of this happens, others will come knocking on your door wanting to be a part of your program! Winning games certainly will provide the experience of fun, satisfaction, and meaningfulness or worthiness.  However, engaging every player and winning the hearts and minds of each one is significantly more valuable.

Step 5:  Provide a highly organized and meticulously planned (in writing) practice or workout for your players every day. By the way, this is one of the nationally recognized 14 legal duties for coaches.

Sidebar logic:  A coach’s duty in practices and workouts is to make every player good enough to play, not just the first teamers and best athletes.  A coach’s objective here is to provide for maximum quality repetitions for all of your players (and, especially, those second and third teamers!).  Find ways for second and third string players to be involved and get repetitions throughout your practices.  These players will eventually start or play an important role in your program’s success if not this season, the next for sure.  To engage all your players for an entire practice takes hard work, i.e. great planning and organization.  The more ALL of your players are engaged in practices, the greater will be the mental intensity throughout practices . . . and the greater the mental intensity the greater will be physical effort, quality of repetitions, retention of skills and knowledge . . . and the better will be their focus and execution in games . . . and this will result in more wins!

Step 6:  Become a recruiter in the halls of your school. If you do not ask them to come out and try football, they won’t.  Develop a recruiting plan and include actions such as, but not limited to:

  • Be visible in your school. Volunteer for lunch room, parking lot or bus duty. Get in front of your students daily and often.  When you see someone that does not play, looks athletic or plays another sport ask them to come tryout! One thing is sure, if you don’t ask, they will never become one of your players.  Sidebar note: Jermale Kelly, one of our SC Mr. Football winners and an All-SEC receiver, did not play his freshman year.  He was in the band until Coach Wayne Green at Berea HS asked him to come out and try football.
  • Peer pressure is a huge force among teens. Get your players to recruit also! Ask them to follow-up on those whom you have asked to come out or saw as a potential candidate.
  • Work with your P.E. teacher to develop a simple motor ability test for all incoming freshmen in their classes (make sure the vertical jump or standing long jump—the single most reliable test item for measuring athletic ability—is on the test). Those who meet your benchmarks for potential ball players are ones you will want to recruit.
  • Find out who got cut from the basketball or baseball tryouts and ask them to join. These kids usually have excellent athletic ability and ball skills. Don’t forget the track program—football is a game of strength, power and footspeed.
  • Recruit from the soccer program. Strikers, forwards and midfielders usually have good footspeed and will make terrific skill players and defensive backs. Fullbacks can make terrific linebackers!  Sidebar note: the best free safety we ever coached was a soccer mid-fielder, an All-American in college and played pro football!
  • Use social media to promote your program (find ways to make this happen!).
  • Promote the values (life skills to be learned) in playing football every chance you get!

There are likely many other steps or actions that will increase participation numbers. This writer has no doubt you can brainstorm even better ideas that will work even better.  With a much different perspective, I recommend you purchase Jim Renner’s 7 Simple Tips to Increase Your High School Football Program Participation and Player Performance (can be purchased on Amazon for $15).

If you really care as I do about high school football, its critical role in our society, the life lessons it offers teenagers, and are concerned about declining participation numbers; I implore you to seek every idea that will enhance the fun, enjoyment, meaningfulness, and worthiness of playing this great American game. I beg you and your fellow football coaches in our state to go “toe-to-toe” with this issue and make it a priority over the next few years.  It is my hope that the football coaches in our state will make this a major topic in upcoming clinics over the next year inviting fellow coaches who have large teams to share their number-increasing strategies. Let’s make our game of high school football great again!