I don’t need to tell you that the sport of football has been under a microscope lately– from youth programs through the NFL, the debates include injuries, player misconduct, locker room bullying, intercollegiate scandals, and more. The current state of the sport has steered many parents to rethink their child’s participation, several former NFLers have publicly stated that their children won’t play football. Kids that once dreamed of being their town’s future varsity captain, an all-American at their in-state college, or Sunday star in the NFL are now getting sent to soccer practice and alternative activities. To me, it seems that the growth of the sport has also served as the reason it’s image has taken a hit. From dad’s that expect their 5th grader to be a scholarship athlete, high schoolers holding their own press conferences, and pros/collegiates setting countless examples of character and conduct issues; to coaches who are more worried about their record than teaching young men, the organizations (and money) that often force them to be this way, and the whole debate of player safety– our sport may be in trouble. I think a lot of the solutions to these issues can start at the youth level. Based on personal experience, conversations, and observations with coaches, parents, organizers, medical professionals, and former NFL/NCAA players, this entry is a collection of opinions and advice on ways to take football back to being the greatest sport a young player can participate in.
For a little more about my experience as a player, read My Story. Since my playing days, I’ve spent over 3 years starting and running football academies, camps, leagues, special events, and developmental programs for youth football players across Iowa. I’ve grown passionate about working with impressionable young athletes and set out to show them a path to excel as football players and young men. I cherish my playing days, especially as a youngster. I played football anywhere I could– on the playground, in the backyard, at the park, in the gym, and I destroyed my parent’s basement bouncing off the walls tacklers. It was in these hardly organized pickup games that I believe most of my athletic development occurred. I often played with older cousins and neighborhood kids, and always loved a tough challenge. Not only did I develop essential movement skills; I also gained an awareness of the rules, techniques, and strategies of the game. My first experience with organized football was 7th grade tackle football.
There’s no doubt that football is a sport that embraces toughness. It is physically demanding, players often play ‘banged-up”, you have to constantly train your body, and more. A player will never reach his full potential until he has learned to be tough physically and mentally. But being a good football player takes more than toughness. It’s not about how hard you hit; at some level, everyone will hit the same. Young players need to develop dynamic qualities such as leadership, teamwork, accountability, humility, self-confidence, and perseverance. They need to experience the sport with enthusiasm, fun, & energy. Winning shouldn’t be valued over doing your best and improving yourself physically, mentally, & socially. These are the qualities that make a person tough. These intangibles go a long way on the field, but just as importantly, they help a young person overcome the challenges of life. Just like football, life is tough too. Shouldn’t the goal of any youth sport be to prepare young boys and girls for the tough road ahead, both on the field and in life?
My personal opinion is that tackle football should not be played until 6th grade at the earliest. Even at that age, I would only recommend it for elite 6th graders with a lot of experience. These days, people are quick talk about concussions and player safety in tackle football– I look at it purely from a coaching & development perspective. Youth players can rarely perform basic fundamental skills & drills with perfect body control and consistency NOT in pads. When you put them in pads, their skeletal functionality becomes restricted and players often can’t raise their arms above their head, turn their head to the side, or bend their knees to get into a stance or run. Now they really struggle with the drills and begin to develop bad habits. Yes, they actually get better at doing things incorrectly and inefficiently.
All young players are going to mistime their jump on a catch, get fooled by a reverse, take a bad pursuit angle, trip and fall, or make other fundamental mistakes as they play. They NEED to make these mistakes in order to learn NOT to make them. It’s much more difficult to learn these lessons and develop awareness & confidence when you’re getting hit around, knocked to the ground, and can’t move properly. Try learning to ride a bike without training wheels; you’re going to crash a bunch and eventually get fed up and say, “to hell with this.” That’s exactly what one local Iowa City head coach has seen with his youth program. His program began a tackle option for 3rd-4th grade a number a years ago, and the first group to participate was now in high school. Coach said that there were 47 kids that played in the initial 3rd-4th grade group; only 25 were still playing in high school. His reason: “they didn’t like getting hit.” I’ve heard this sentiment from several coaches who have seen numbers in their own programs dwindle. They all attribute it to starting tackle football a too young of an age.
Play Less, Practice More
Kids spend too much time competing and too little time on developing their skills. As Allen Iverson infamously said, “We’re talkin’ bout practice, man.” Regarding youth sports, I often hear of 70 game baseball seasons, 80 plus basketball games throughout the year, and nearly 20 football games during a fall. These are staggering numbers and far greater than the number of games they will experience in high school & beyond. Instead, look for more opportunities to improve and develop skills. Spend more time at practice, do some off the field training (speed & agility, weights, film), attend summer camps, & other football programs. Watch football on TV, listen to the announcers—many of them are former players & coaches who provide great insight.
My favorite setting to coach in is during weekly offseason programs and summer camps. There are no games to win; there are no starters or backups. The sole intent of every session is to make each individual player a better football player, no matter what level they’re currently at. I’ve stood and played catch with young players that dropped 10 or 15 passes in a row. But we kept trying and all of a sudden they catch the 16th, the 17th, 18th, on through 20. Then they have a renewed confidence and begin to excel in other drills. There is little time for this attention and development during games and coaches often can’t give individualized training to everyone on the team at practice. This happens in summer camps and football programs around the state. Many summer camps are loaded with staffs that include college coaches, former NFL & NCAA players, and top high school coaches in Iowa.
In order to be a great football player, you need to be a well rounded athlete. Youth should participate in multiple sports activities as they grow up, and not specialize on one specific sport year round. Personally, I played football from August-October, wrestled November-March, and played baseball from April-July. I excelled in all three, and my experiences in each one made me better at the others. Baseball improved my hand eye coordination for catching passes as a tight end; wrestling improved my footwork, hand placement, and balance as a lineman.
A young player also shouldn’t specialize at a particular position in their development. There is no telling what position a youth player will develop into after he matures. Many factors such as coaching, ability, competition, potential, risk, and team needs play a role in an athlete’s position on the field. Having experience at a variety of positions will give a young player more opportunities down the road and raise their awareness about what’s happening on the field. They will become a smarter and more versatile players. This not only improves that player individually, but also improves the team he plays for in a big way.
There’s an old saying that coaches are hardest on their own sons. My dad was a coach, youth wrestling & baseball. He wasn’t hard on me. He was tough, but not hard. He was tough in that he expected me to be a good teammate, a respectful winner and loser, and a coachable hard worker. He wasn’t afraid to let me get beat, fail, or be knocked down. He raised me to get back up and win the next one.
He never dwelled on my loses or tried to live through my success. He never questioned my coaches or blamed the refs. I can’t ever remember him being upset or disappointed with me after a loss. He attended every game and was simply there to watch and support. My mom was there with him, she fed me every meal and washed every uniform. My parents knew that the experience of sports for me wasn’t about winning and losing, but about the experiences and life lessons that would shape me into a good man.
Parents, your kids aren’t going to be scholarship candidates until at least high school, no matter how good they are. Don’t expect them to win every game or make every play, especially when they’re young. They need to develop in an environment that is fun and focuses on personal improvement over winning. They need to miss a tackle, strike out, get pinned, and lose from time-to-time. How else are they going to learn not to?
As your son matures and approaches junior high & high school, it’s important that you let him choose his own path. You should want for him only what he wants for himself, not what you want for him. It’s important that you set a positive example and hold him accountable as a student/citizen. Opportunities can be lost (or gained) due to grades and character.
Look at it this way. Your kid getting a scholarship is an 18-year race for him to become a top student-athlete among his peers. This encompasses much more than just what goes on between the white lines. There are many ways to run a race of such length. Often the sprinter fails to finish while the pacer flourishes in the end. Let your son flourish.