You’ll Rely On Your Academics Longer Than Your Athletics

I got lucky. I made the mistake that every academic counselor tries to steer student athletes away from. I didn’t put a lot of thought into a post-college career because I never considered a life without football. I eventually settled on the athlete-friendly Communication Studies major just to ‘get a piece of paper’ and fell into the “I can do anything with that degree” game. I was smart enough to get passing grades with marginal effort and kept my focus on football. Looking back, I wish I had placed as much importance on my college experiences, including my academic pursuits. To make matters worse, I had suspected that professional football would not be in my future after having surgery on my back as a redshirt freshman, yet, I wasn’t smart enough to really take advantage of the free educational opportunity in front of me. By some stroke of luck, I managed to fall into exactly what I went to school for.

Although my Communication Studies coursework was not overly intense, I apply the study of human interactions and business communications that we covered directly in operating my business. I spend time thinking about the way I communicate with my players, their parents, colleagues & other coaches, readers, potential sponsors, and the array of people I work with. I used to think I could sell anything with a well-crafted mass email, but after spending hours to make sure it was worded perfectly, I realized how quicker & more effective picking up the phone is—or better yet, a face to face conversation. I enjoy establishing a personal connection with the people I work with, and truly set out to earn their business long term. The studies & experiences I did to earn my degree will serve a great purpose for the rest of my life—much more than football will.

In my junior year, I began taking classes in the Entrepreneurial Management program (learning to start a business). This was essentially a poor man’s business minor and I gravitated to the course because class times were friendly with our football training schedule. I had no real interest in starting my own business, but the subject matter interested me and these quickly became my favorite classes. This gave me the know-how and the confidence to finally put a stake in the ground (Tyler Blum Football LLC, dba Taking Back Football) and commit to being a self-employed, full-time youth football coach—something I’m continually convincing myself is viable long-term. I find myself working “on” my business as much as I work “in” my business. The real-world knowledge and practical experience I got in the entrepreneurial program prepared me to transition from a college student to adulthood, regardless of what career direction I was headed.

Finally, the football education I received at Iowa makes up the final piece of my takeaway from the University. After having spent time in several different positions rooms, I had learned a lot about the Xs & Os across the entire field. I had learned how different positions practice and the development that occurs over time. I knew the things I was learning could be applied in simple terms to youth & high school players, and exposing them to this would give them even better opportunities than I had as a young player.

I had no plan when I graduated though, and I wasn’t specialized in anything of great value to employers. I was tremendously lucky to get hooked up with Diamond Dreams in Iowa City, and start their youth football program. I was in a position to do EXACTLY what I had gone to school for—run a business teaching (communicating) the sport of football to kids and their parents. I’ve never looked back and continue to pursue these efforts professionally and passionately everyday. I fall back on the academics I experienced at Iowa much more than athletics. Lots of people know a lot about football, but the mark of a good coach is how well you’re able to get others to receive that knowledge and to apply it on & off the field. It has nothing to do with the amount of one’s knowledge, accolades, or physical abilities.

After a few years out of the classroom, I realized that I need to continue pursing new knowledge and have enrolled in classes to further my football certifications, to become a substitute teacher, and to continually work on the professional and legal aspects of my business. I’ll reiterate to the young athletes: No matter how good you may be, there’s a huge probability that you will need to rely on your academic skills a lot more and a lot longer than your athletic skills—even if you make it to the NFL. When you get to adulthood, you will realize that being smart is pretty cool and gives you lots of options in life. Finish your school year strong, and start thinking about the kinds of careers you might enjoy as an adult. Prepare yourself for it now.

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The Life Of My Football Life

My life has been guided by a sport that I fell in love with from the moment I first played on the playground. Football has been my medium for learning life’s most critical skills. The football field is a place to develop interpersonal skills, overcome challenges, to express yourself, to earn confidence, develop pride, display your dedication, and to simply have fun with your friends. Even as a coach, I seek football as an outlet to continually develop these virtues in my personal life. Football is my entertainment, my education, my job, my interactions & network, my livelihood, & my way of life. I couldn’t be more thankful that the sport chose me as much as I chose it, and that I have the opportunity make a game my profession.

My passion for the sport developed well before I knew it could pay for my future education or qualify as an occupation. Growing up, I can remember playing at recess, PE class, after school, in our neighborhood backyards, at the park, even in the house—anywhere I could. In my hometown, a core group of kids two years older than me played pick-up games daily throughout the summer. Of course, these games often turned from touch to tackle. I learned to be tough and was forced to raise my level of play to hang with older kids. If there were not friends around, I’d play by myself on our yard, manning every position on the field. While pretending to be my favorite NFL players, I would spin past and jump over imaginary defenders; I would throw passes into the air like a quarterback and then run and jump to catch them as the wide receiver. I participated in local Punt, Pass, & Kick and similar events from the time I was in kindergarten—only after having practiced the skills for hours and hours in the yard. In 4th grade, I became a team manger for our high school team and was able to consume even more football on the sidelines at practices and games.

Off the field, I read books and magazines about my favorite teams and players; I watched every game I could on TV, listening to the announcers, learning the rules and history of the game. Like most kids, I also loved video games. I would be embarrassed to know the amount of hours I spent playing Madden and the NCAA football games—creating players, teams, and growing dynasties season after season. In addition to learning the X’s and O’s through the actual gameplay, users were able to go through other aspects such as creating playbooks, recruiting prospects, constructing rosters, dealing with salary caps, mini-camp drills, and so much more. Although I’d hate to admit how much time I wasted doing so, the experience only fed my growing desire and knowledge for the game.

Finally, in 7th grade, I could play! Junior high football was my first opportunity to put the pads on and play real games with coaches, a scoreboard, and referees. I participated in 5 different sports throughout middle school but still found time to attend football camps hosted by local schools and colleges. As I transitioned into high school, I was fortunate to see a lot of varsity & JV playing time as an underclassman due to being from a small town with not many kids out for football. I again faced the challenge of competing against older and more mature players—I experienced my fair share of picking myself up off the turf and trying again the next play. I was also introduced to weight training throughout the offseason and continued to attend camps.

The tables turned when I became an upperclassman; my hard work was beginning to pay-off on the field and opportunities beyond high school started to present themselves. I began visiting colleges, learning about the recruiting process, and trying to decide where I wanted to continue my football career and education. Ultimately, I chose the University of Iowa because they were the first school to recruit me—plain and simple. The decision made certain that football would be at the forefront of my everyday life for the next 4 years. I couldn’t think of anything better.

During my time at Iowa, I got a first hand look at big time football: offensive & defensive schemes, special teams, practice plans, off-season training, game-week & scout team preparations, football operations, and more. I spent time at six different positions on offense & defense, picking up tips from several different coaches on the field and in film rooms. Although I never made significant contributions on Saturdays during my career, I exited Iowa’s program with an incredible wealth of football knowledge and acumen. I knew I needed to do something with it in order to stay involved in something that was so engrained in my life.

Most ex-players turn to coaching to fill this void. I was no different and was fortunate enough to find an opportunity in Iowa City to get involved with youth football. What started as a small effort to teach the game to kids turned into a driving desire to impact the future of the sport. I’ve grown to enjoy coaching more than I did playing—something I didn’t think was possible until I saw the impact a coach can have.

Football remains a constant focal point in my life, as indicated by my Twitter feed, the TV I watch, radio I listen to, and news I consume. I jokingly label Saturdays & Sundays during the season to be my ‘continuing education’ days so I can watch every game, but mostly keep track of fantasy stats. My work, play, professional network & friends are all tied to football. I often wonder what life would be like without football playing such a prominent role. I think about the other interests I’d have time to pursue, but it’s a wrestling match that football always wins. From the time I was a kid, my dreams were always framed by the sport, and I feel so fortunate to continue chasing those dreams. I feel that I’ve always been at my personal best on a football field, either as a player or a coach. Football is my life.

A Nod To Wrestling

A Nod To Wrestling

To put it simply— Wrestling is exactly what youth football players should be doing during the football offseason. I was a dedicated wrestler for 15 years and recall how much that sport impacted my path from Walnut, Iowa to the University of Iowa.

I was in an Iowa State dorm one night attending summer wrestling camp with some junior high buddies. Football was always my first love, but I had wrestled (and played basketball) since kindergarten and was approaching the 9th grade decision between the mat or the court. With football on my mind, I knew I needed to wrestle. If your kid loves football as much as I did, he should wrestle too. Here’s why:

Requirements Of Wrestling.

Strength. Endurance. Leverage. Balance. Hand-fighting. Takedowns.

Dedication. Hard Work. Toughness. Discipline. Guts.

Read those again…

The physical and psychological demands of the sport apply directly to the football field. The wrestling mat provides more opportunities for up close & personal combat with a guy that you’re trying to physically dominate, just as you would attempt to do on the gridiron. As a result, participation in wrestling is especially helpful for young linemen—the fundamentals to succeed on the mat and in the trenches go hand-in-hand. Mentally, it’s a sport that teaches boys the things they’ll need to know to become men some day.

Football Coaches Recruit Wrestlers

The story I’m told is that Iowa wrestling coach Jim Zalesky noticed a 215-pound sophomore wrestling for Atlantic at the 2003 Iowa high school state wrestling tournament. He thought my body type and ability suited a football player and reportedly notified Coach Ferentz’s office. I’ve never confirmed the story, but soon after Iowa’s great OL coach Reese Morgan started visiting my school on his recruiting trips.

I would run into a lot of my future Hawkeye teammates on the wrestling mat. My bracket that sophomore year contained Mike Humpal (2x State Champion) & Matt Kroul—Matt & I both won state championships at different weights the following season, warming up together in the basement of The Barn (Vets Auditorium). There were more ex-grapplers in the locker room in Iowa City—state champions from Iowa, Illinois, New Jersey, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania.

Football coaches know the value and makeup of a wrestler. They know the physical and mental requirements to compete and how closely those apply in football. It’s no coincidence that football players who wrestle wind up on college recruiting radars.

If you need more convincing, check out the article and coach quotes below.

Wrestling Can Help Make Football Safer

This is my belief. Wrestling bridges a gap between flag football and tackle. A wrestler learns to feel the strength and weight of an opponent. He learns to take an opponent from his feet to the ground in a controlled manner, how to get inside hand control in a tie up, and to keep his head up—a foundation of USA Football’s Heads Up Movement. Wrestling requires incredible endurance, strength, and other physical traits that could lead to safer football play in youth. It acts as a natural transition into contact sports.

 

If you want to improve your football skills, wrestle. Doing so will raise your level of physicality and your give you a big mental edge. Being a multi-sport athlete is critical toward developing into an elite athlete in any sport. Wrestling and football compliment each other as well as any two sports. And if you live in Iowa, I don’t need to explain to you the importance and level of wrestling in our state. There’s no better opportunity to improve your football game in the offseason than to wrestle.

 

Extras:

Ohio State Football: Work on mat can be edge on line

Why Wrestle

Football recruits boast successful wrestling background

Woodbury Central’s Paulsen, an Iowa football recruit, thrives on wrestling mat

“I draft wrestlers because they are tough. I have never had a problem with a wrestler.” –Joe Gibbs, Hall of Fame football coach

“I would have all of my offensive linemen wrestle if I could.”-John Madden, Hall of Fame football coach

“Wrestlers make coaching football easy. They have balance, coordination, and as a coaching staff, we know they’re tough.” –Tom Osborne, College Hall of Fame football coach-University of Nebraska

“I have never seen a good wrestler turn out to be a bad football player.” – Kirk Ferentz, National & 2x Conference Coach of the Year, University of Iowa

Notable NFL players who wrestled: JJ Watt, Ray Lewis, Bo Jackson, Teddy Bruschi, Warren Sapp, Bruce Smith , & many, many more.

Winnings & Losing in Youth Sports

This post was inspired by a USA Football article “How to come back from defeat,” which discusses dealing with losses in relation to a player’s purpose for participating in the first place. 

In the NFL and NCAA, coaches & players are often judged by one stat– wins & losses. Rightfully so. Football at these levels is part of big business, and nothing is better for business than winning or worse than losing. But your child’s youth football team is not a business. Coaches and players won’t be fired for going 1-4 this season, and no one will even remember the scores or records a year from now. The only things that will remain are the moments your child experienced and lessons he learned throughout the course of the season.

The personal growth and improvement a young player can achieve by dealing with adversity, overcoming challenges, and earning their success far outweighs the benefits of experiencing perpetual success. Of course, it’s necessary for every young player to learn to win with good sportsmanship, but it’s also vital for their personal development to bounce back from a tough loss. The values developed through winning are just as many as those experienced in defeat. The arc of your child’s youth athletic career should contain a mixture of results & experiences in order to maximize personal development. Isn’t that why you put them in sports in the first place?

Rather than worrying about the result of the game, focus on the personal progress of your player from beginning of the season to the end, from one year to the next. Don’t compare your player to others. Instead, compare with earlier versions of themselves. If there’s consistent progress from day-day and year-year, your player will learn to love the game and football will play an important part of their life- win or lose.

 

Recruiting Tips

HIGH SCHOOL PLAYERS— getting a college football team to look at you may not be as difficult as you imagine. Sure, you need to be a heck of a player for them to seriously recruit you and consider offering a scholarship, but you need to make yourself a recruit-able athlete before that will happen. Here are some tips to get on recruiting radars and pursue scholarships from the schools of your dreams.

Takes No Talents (TNTs)- There are a lot of attributes that coaches look for in prospects— height, weight, speed, etc. But many of the initial things they want to know are character traits that take no talent to possess. Effort. Toughness. Heart. Resolve. Perseverance. The list could go on. Often, these are the qualities that end up determining who gets the scholarship offer when several prospects have similar abilities. In my experiences, the following are the first 3 things a coach wants to know about you before he cares how fast you run or how high you jump:

  1. Can you listen and follow directions? College coaches don’t want to be your parents. They will have an expectation that you already know how to be accountable, coachable, and that you apply the details of their instruction. Nothing drives a coach madder than when he asks you to run a route at 12 yards and you run it at 10½. Or when he coaches your teammate up on something and you step up and make the same mistake because you weren’t paying attention. Believe it or not, many incoming freshman struggle with this concept.
  2. Are you tough? College football is a man’s sport. You will get knocked down. You will fail. You will get yelled at. You will sweat, bleed, cry, and hurt. You still want in? You’ll have to prove it—everyday, on the field. Coaching staffs literally discuss the questions, ‘Is the guy tough, is he a football player?’ in their draft and recruiting meetings. One of the harshest criticisms a football player can receive is to hear that he’s soft. Coaches will always find room for tough football players on their team.
  3. Do you love football? We all love to win and score touchdowns; to high-five and hear the crowd roar. As your career progresses, those results are harder to come by at higher levels. Achieving success on those 13 Saturdays will be a direct by-product of what you do on the other 352 days of the year. Your commitment and dedication will be tested certainly on the field, but just as much with off the field distractions. By the way, you have 14 hours of class accompanied by homework and exams every week. Football isn’t just an after school season activity anymore—you have to make decisions everyday that impact your football career. Coaches will know how much you love football by your everyday effort on the field, and your decision making off of it.

Send your Tapes. You have to let recruiting coordinators know that you want to be recruited. Most schools recruit across a large portion of the country and cover hundreds of prospects every year. It’s easy to get missed. You have to put yourself on their radar, or better yet—on their desk and in front of their eyes. Send your games tapes directly to a program’s recruiting department. Notice I didn’t say ‘send a highlight tape’; coaches want to see how you play on every down— not a collection of the plays where you decided to play hard against the worst team in the conference, accompanied by music that will be muted anyway and flashy graphics used as makeup. Chances are, a graduate assistant will watch the film and if they think you’re worth a look, they’ll get your film in front of a position coach or someone that recruits your area. They’ll send you some mail to get you on their master recruiting database as a prospect.

Go to camp. Almost every college across the country, big and small, offers summer camps to high school players. These camps are staffed by the school’s coaching staffs and are a great chance for them to get an up-close look at some talent of the future. They want to see how you battle against someone better than you, how quickly you apply coaching, and the overall energy that you bring to the field. Summer camps are an extremely valuable way to improve your skills and expand your exposure to schools of your desire.

Take Care of Business In The Classroom, Community. College coaches talk to everyone— your coach, principal, teachers, coaches you played against, and even college coaches they recruit against. As much as they want to know about you on the field, they want to know as much about you off the field. Do you do participate in class & do your homework? How do you treat others at school? How much time do you spend in the weight room, with your girlfriend, or playing video games? When handing out scholarships, schools look for positive team captains, dedicated multi-sport athletes, focused honor students, and upstanding leaders within their schools and communities.

Don’t get caught up in the hype. Keep your head down and keep working hard. It’s great to get recruiting letters from a host of big-time schools, to read your name in the paper and online, and to be wooed and wined during recruiting visits. But not one of those things gets you a snap on Saturdays. Keep your focus on training and continually improving your game. You should never be as good as you want to be; if you are, you’ve prepared to be done playing.

Don’t worry about getting recruited until after your sophomore season. Schools don’t seriously consider a prospect until he’s gone through maturity and gotten snaps at the varsity level. Send your sophomore tapes and go to camps the summer before your junior and senior seasons. Let them know you want to be recruited, and then focus all your energy on improving the player and person they’re recruiting.

Bonus Tip: Not everyone has Division 1 talent, the ability to play in major conference, and only a few make it to the NFL. But many of us love football just as much as the guys who do make it, and there are countless opportunities to keep playing a game you love at smaller colleges across the country. You can receive full or at least partial scholarships to earn an education (especially if you’re a good student), and continue playing the greatest game in the world.

Once you have all the above covered, you’re off to a great start in getting recruited! Keep working hard to give yourself as many options as possible. Once you get a scholarship and pick your dream school, then the real work begins. Prepare yourself for it now!

UPDATE: The following article was published by USA Football with more insights and info on getting recruited.

Tips For Parents and Players on the College Recruitment Process

Keep A Long Term Perspective On Your Kid’s Participation In Sports

NEWS FLASH—Participation rates in youth & high school sports are declining. A January Wall Street Journal article references a study conducted by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA.org) & the Physical Activity Council that surveyed nearly 70,000 households. The study reports a 5.4% drop in tackle football participation among 6-18 year olds from 2008-2012. Similar declines are reported for soccer (-7.1%), baseball (-7.2%), and basketball (-8.3%). Officials in the USA Hockey organization found that 43% of their participants were quitting by age 9, information that sparked some major changes in the organization’s approach to hockey at the youth level. However, according to the Census, the population of 6-17 year olds in the U.S. fell only 0.6% in the time span.

The study goes on to state that the number of 6-17 year olds that participate in no physical activity over a twelve-month span is 1 in 5! “In terms of overall health, I’m more concerned about an inactive child than a child suffering a head injury,” says Cedric X. Bryant, Chief Science officer for the American Council on Exercise. These are concerning trends and have stirred debates on reform in youth sports. Why are more kids quitting or not participating in youth sports and how can we reverse the decline?

• “The sport isn’t fun to the child. We have to be aware of single sport specialization, overuse, overworking kids searching for elite athletes; all of these things are causing kids to leave youth sports and not return” – Michael Bergeron, Executive Director of the National Youth Sports Health & Safety Institute
• “The kid who practices hard & who takes pride in being part of the team but only get a few minutes in the game—that kid has too many other options” – Greg Nossaman, President of Ohio High School Basketball Coaches Association
• “Kids vote with their feet. If they are not having fun & enjoying what they do, they walk away from our sport” – Ken Martel, USA Hockey’s leader on youth reforms.
• “Kids don’t like getting hit. As soon as that happens, they’d rather go do something else” – a local high school coach on tackle football at the youngest levels.

A July 2013 ESPN The Magazine issue dedicated to ‘kids in sports’ featured a survey of 565 youth athletes age 10-18 and found that more than 80% compete in sports to have fun—ranking ahead of winning, earning a scholarship, going pro, or playing because their parents want them to (only 10% reported this). Yet, 73% claimed their parents put pressure on them to be successful in games while 77% feel it from the coach too. The feature also did a survey of parents of 9-13 year olds; on average, those parents gave their kids a 32% chance of earning an athletic scholarship, and they gave them an 11% chance of going pro. In reality, about 5% of high-schoolers earn an athletic scholarship and less than 1% will become professional athletes. Haven’t you seen the commercials? Parents, coaches, and even youth organizers in general need to have a long-term approach when considering how kids experience athletics. Too many of them hang on to every down, shot, at-bat, pitch, and game. It’s contributing to the trend of decreased participation.

We’ve all seen the increased penalties, fines, and disqualifications on the NFL & NCAA football fields due to illegal hits, unsportsmanlike play, and pretty much anytime a quarterback it touched. But the awareness and reform needs to start with youth football. By the time a player reaches college football, it very difficult for him to change the way he’s played (and been coached) ever since he started playing. The NFL & USA Football have teamed up and taken some measures to increase participation and make the sport more fun and safer with their ‘Heads Up’ tackling initiative and the NFL Flag program. There needs to be more of an effort at the youth level to make sure players are enjoying their experience and improving themselves personally with the aim facilitate continued participation (and improvement).

Just as players & coaches at the highest levels have to adjust with the current evolution of the game (rule changes, no huddle offenses, dual-threat QBs), everybody in the sport needs to adopt new ways of developing the future generation. Advances in exercise science and weight training sparked an unofficial “Bigger. Faster. Stronger.” credo in every football weight room in the country for the last 30 years. But when the science says Safer, there seems to be some hesitation or debate about what that means. Listen to the science.

USA Hockey got the message. As mentioned, they made some major changes to their program model. The organization’s American Development Model (ADM) now bans body checking at the 12U level, ended major peewee championship tournaments that attracted superteams, discontinued full-ice games, and encourages their players to participate in multiple sports. “ADM recognizes, as pediatricians do, that the needs and characteristics of a 7 year old—physically, cognitively, and emotionally—are not the same as 17 year olds,” says the article. The model recommends a 3-1 practice to game ratio through age 12 in order to take advantage of what neuroscientists call a ‘motor skills window’ when major development occurs. Every player can get opportunities to improve and participate in a well-designed practice. A similar model has been in place in Sweden—which produces Olympic gold medals, world championships, and NHL stars at or above the rate the US does despite one-sixth the number of youth participants.

A major inspiration that has led me to working with young athletes is my own experience in sports growing up. Those were my glory days. I was the best among my peers and I just loved playing ball and competing at everything. I played on the playground, at the park, in the backyard, at family reunions, and everywhere I could. I had great coaches and really cherish my youth sports experience. I know how well the lessons from the field, mat, and mound serve me in my everyday life. My mom would always ask where I was going to live and what I was going to do for work every fall I came back from independent baseball. I always said, “I don’t know. But I will figure it out.” I always did because of the resolve, perseverance, and other humane qualities I developed over years of athletic participation. Sports taught me to listen & follow directions, work hard, be accountable, be a leader, how to win & lose, and so much more. I use those charter traits everyday of my life. I want to pass that on to the next generation of players.

In high school, I had a bright future with a lot of options in sports. I made the mistake all the coaches and academic advisors tell you not to— I always thought I was destined to be a pro and never really thought about what I’d do if that didn’t happen. Well, I didn’t make it; back surgery and an uptick in competition at a Big 10 school left me flat out not good enough. It happens to a lot of athletes, weather in junior high, high school, or beyond, you come to terms that athletics might not be your lottery ticket. But that should never have been your goal in the first place.

I was lucky. After graduating and not going pro, I didn’t know what was next. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. My middling GPA, communication studies degree, and entrepreneurial management certificate were nice but didn’t set me apart from many others in the job world even if I did have a career in mind. A great opportunity came with Diamond Dreams and I was able to blend everything together and do something I love. Now I run a business predicated on communicating with people about football, exactly what I went to college for! I was able to capitalize on the opportunity because of the life-path sports had taken me on.

You should approach athletics as source for your kid to learn values, develop character, and improve him/herself personally. Seek out programs and coaches that emphasize learning fundamentals, & having fun. Winning is fun, but losing builds character and is necessary for everyone to experience. Look for opportunities to practice more and compete less. Keep a realistic perspective and a big-picture mindset on the role of sports in your child’s life.

The video below features two former NFL players, youth coaches, fathers, and a medical professional as they discuss USA Football’s Heads Up Tackling initiative and the landscape of youth football. Listen closely as the panelists mention that flag football may be the best option for our youth and they provide great insights on parenting, coaching, & participation in sports.

Other Sources

Wallerson, Ryan: Youth Participation Weakens in Basketball, Football, Soccer. Wall Street Journal.
Jan 31, 2014. Accessed online at: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303519404579350892629229918

ESPN The Magazine. July 8 2013 Kids In Sports issue

Taking Back Football

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?

Tackle Football

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.

Don’t Specialize

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.

Parenting

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.