And how to avoid this all-too-common penalty
| 4 min read
I was always that player — the running back the defense couldn’t catch, the player the offense loved to give the ball to. Until, of course, I flag guarded and earned my team a penalty from the spot of the foul and a loss of down.
Flag guarding is when the ball-carrier prevents a defender from pulling down their flag. It’s only natural for beginning players to do it — and imperative for coaches to teach them not to.
“Flag guarding is creating an obstacle for a defender reaching for a player’s flag,” says Dwight Braswell, a parent-coach who goes by “Coach D” online. “That can be swatting. It can be unintentional, where someone is running and that’s their style, where they use their arms a lot and accidentally slap a defensive hand away,” he explains. “It’s basically obstructing your flag from the defender.”
The subtle movement can set a team back in many ways, says Braswell, because flag guarding tends to happen on a big gain or a touchdown. In that way, it takes away momentum. It can also be a huge distraction. There’s often arguing where one person saw it, one person didn’t, the player is asking for help from the coach, the parents get heated, and things take a wild turn — when the focus should really be on the next play and what the team can do better.
Flag guarding is “the worst,” says Madison Ciurciu, a flag football defensive captain for Ramapo High School in New Jersey.
But she’s played long enough to have strategies to deal with it. Says Madison, her best bet is to watch the player’s hips close enough to see the call carrier’s hand move outside the rhythm of the flag.
“If she consistently keeps her hand in the way, the other side should be open, the one where she’s holding the ball,” Madison says.
The other defensive move Madison tends to employ is trying to get the player out of bounds, as most flag guarding happens on the sideline.
As a youth flag football coach, Braswell tries to work on different running styles with his players to keep them from committing the penalty.
“They have to practice a running style with their arms up, tucked high above the hip and not flailing,” he says. “We’ll practice spin moves as an alternative to flag guarding and try to teach running at half speed to make it a conscious thing.”
Braswell uses two activities in particular to coach players out of flag guarding. One is called Sideline, where he creates a narrow sideline lane with defenders on one side and running backs on the other. This way he can see how a player instinctively runs when faced with a defender and a sideline.
“I coach in the moment, where I can spot the players who flag guard and address it as I see it, and we do rapid reps,” he says.
The other is called the Snake, where players are set up around four cones, and weave between them to create a snake-like shape. This activity gets players into an unconscious style of play, where it’s easier to catch them flag guarding as it happens.
Flag guarding is a hard habit to break. So coaches should be sure to praise the effort, not penalize.
“I’m big on making a huge deal when players are making improvements,” says Braswell. “That means running around and giving everyone a high five, not just the player. And I’ll make sure their parents know how well they did, too,” he says.
Braswell says he doesn’t care as much about the actual penalty as he does about a player who has the best touchdown of their life taken away because they’re flag guarding. In that way, he says, the training is well worth it.