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.

University of Iowa Sports Medicine researching local youth football

When I started the RedZone Youth Football League with Diamond Dreams, one of driving forces behind it’s genesis was the growing concern from parents over injuries & concussions in youth tackle football. A heightened awarness and growing media coverage has perpetuated these concerns.

We set out to do our homework on the subject, but found that very few studies have been done. We reached out to the University of Iowa Sports Medicine department and learned that they had already gotten to work. They too had sought some data on the subject, and like us, found very little. So they put together their own study to further the research on such a debated issue. 

It was is my belief that flag football is a safer, and overall better option for youth players. Those in favor of tackle football have a strong argument as well. The goal of this study is not to denounce one method and claim the other as superior; their goal is to make the data known so parent’s can make more informed decisions for their children. I’m thrilled to be part of this and hope the results have a positive effect on the sport.

Check out the study here: Youth football and concussions: Worth the risk?

The study is ongoing and they’ve not yet published any results.