Responsible coaching can save youth football


Sunday’s sports pages from sea to shining sea not only included an Associated Press column regarding gambling on NFL games, but also contained an AP article on the future of youth football.  The item from Chris Jenkins provides an accurate snapshot of the practical consequences flowing from the combination of a generation of helicopter parenting and the advancement of medical knowledge regarding the long-term effects of mild brain trauma.

With or without the concussion lawsuits and the suicides of Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, mothers and fathers would continue to shy away from exposing young children to the more immediate risks of playing football.  If padded youth tackle football will survive over the long term (and, frankly, for kids under the age of 12 I’m not sure that it should), efforts must be made to ensure that coaches will be more responsible.

Plenty of the men who give their time to the coaching of youth football undoubtedly have good intentions and use appropriate methods, placing the well-being of their players over the “win-at-all-costs” mentality that infects coaches at every stage of the sport.  But some coaches make youth football their own personal NFL, allowing an obsession with victory to cloud common sense and, at times, basic decency.

Forty years ago, youth coaches routinely denied their players water during practice, kicked them in the asses when they were loafing (I still have a cleat mark or two in mine), and corrected alignment errors by jerking them by the facemasks into the right position.  Though the days of football coaches laying hands on kids have long since ended (except for Mike Vanderjagt . . . allegedly), plenty of youth coaches still insist on a ruthless, aggressive approach from boys who should still be boys, in every way.

I’ve witnessed it.  Several years ago, Florio Jr. had soccer practice.  Nearby, a youth football team was padded up.  The coach was barking at kids no older than 10 like they were adults, cajoling them to be “mean” and “nasty” and to hit the other team so hard that when they cross paths at the mall during high school the opponents will still be intimidated.

It’s shameful and it’s irresponsible and it needs to end, or youth tackle football eventually will.

And that’s where the NFL’s assumption that changes made at the top of the sport will trickle down could be erroneous.  Pro football coaches are accountable to the league office.  College football coaches answer to the NCAA.  At the high-school level and below, who’s really paying attention to what these coaches say and do?

That’s why it’s critical for efforts like the Lystedt Law to be successful in every state.  Without external bright-line rules regarding concussions, coaches who are largely left to their own devices will continue to be able to do things the way they’ve always been done, regardless of any advancements that are made to protect the grown men who play the game.

At every level below college, the challenge for football will be to adapt to the new expectations of society and parents and players, or to face the fact that players and parents and ultimately society will choose another path.  Though it won’t kill the sport completely, it will make it harder for colleges and NFL teams to identify and develop the best of the best available players.

Thus, every college team and every NFL franchise has a direct interest in finding ways to ensure that the stewards of the youth and high-school versions of the game behave responsibly, prudently, and properly when it comes to ensuring the health and safety of the boys and young men entrusted to them.

22 responses to “Responsible coaching can save youth football

  1. fewer sissies or panderers to said sissies with media access can also save youth football.

  2. I have no problem with my sons’ coaches choice of words or style. As long as they are being taught to tackle correctly, play within the rules, and learn how accept wins and losses with humility and respect their teammates and opponents.
    Much rather them grow up to be like a Bill Romanowski rather than an internet hack that most likely deserved that cleat or two in the backside.

  3. How many of those kids go on to play college and pro football? Concussions are not a youth football problem. This is a college and pro football problem and to a very small rare extent a problem for H.S. football.

  4. Too often youth coaches remember being yelled at in high school and adopt that style with younger children without regard to developmental issues. Requiring coaching courses specifically focused on youth is a good start.

  5. I really see no problem with barking at kids like adults. It’s easier to tune out as a kid if an adult is coddling. Being mean and nasty and hitting hard is responsible if the coach is teaching proper technique. Part of the fun of football is physically over powering your opponent.

    I played 10 years of organized football from youth to college. I suffered two concussions during this time. One playing a pickup tackle game in my neighbors back yard, the other during high school flag football gym class. Neither concussion was because someone was being mean and nasty.

  6. What about hockey wrestling field hockey there all really violent sports and noone is stoping those youth sports. I can come up with something dangerous with probably every sport

  7. I didn’t know Youth football was in trouble?

    Are the helicopter parents or coaches any worse then they are in basketball, soccer or baseball?

    The bad over zealous coaches in youth football are no worse in the other sports, I’ve witnessed a youth soccer coach yelling and screaming at a 10 and under girls team.

    Bad coaches yell and scream because they can’t coach.

  8. Someone above made a statement to the effect that concussions are not a problem in youth football and less in high school than for the college or pro levels. I’d like to see the evidence of that claim.

    Here’s some from the CDC that disagrees: each year there are half a million emergency room visits for concussions in kids and teenagers. There’s more, feel free to google the terms CDC, traumatic brain injury, and prevention to get a lot more information on the topic.

    Concussions can happen in any sporting endeavor. Taking steps to prevent them is not being a “sissie”–it’s being a reasonable, responsible adult.

    The state of Oregon has a “Max’s Law” (named for a high school quarterback who nearly died from a severe TBI) that among other things requires concussion recognition training for all coaches and mandatory removal from the game for any signs of a TBI. For more info google Max Conradt and Max’s Law. Every state should pass a similar law.

  9. We don’t need to stop football, we just need to make it safer for players so they don’t have long term effects.

    Some facts:
    There are 4M football players in the US at all levels.
    They average 650 hits to the head every year they play.
    Concussions start in youth football and are cumulative.
    Football accounts for 70% of all sports related concussions.
    6% to 8% of all players will suffer a concussion or more.

    We can reduce these stats by doing a few things that don’t change the game much so players can still play the game they love and not be at so high a risk. Better Training, Better Equipment, Better Recognition and Better Treatment.

  10. Oh, I should have also mentioned that the 500K ER visits for concussions is the tip of the ice berg. Many go unrecognized, others simply are not treated, and some of course only go to their family doc/pediatrician/urgent care center.

  11. Concussions aren’t going to lead to the end of youth football. It will be the jackwagon coaches that yell and scream at 10 year old kids every time they make a mistake. Being tough on a kid and teaching them to learn from mistakes, teaching them accountability is something that I’m all for. The problem is, some of these coaches in charge of little kids think think that the Hard Knocks cameras are on and that they are trying out for the NFL. It’s really pretty pathetic when you witness it first hand as I did. So much so that a good number of kids never came back the following years to play because it wasn’t something that they could enjoy and find passion for. It’s tough to find passion for being demeaned and screamed at every time a ball is dropped or a tackle is missed. When kids play not to make a mistake, rather than to make a play because they don’t wanna get yelled it, it’s pretty obvious that some of the youth coaches (not all of them) will take care of turning kids away from youth football all by themselves.

  12. “I’ve witnessed it. Several years ago, Florio Jr. had soccer practice. Nearby, a youth football team was padded up. ” Bwahahahahahaaaa…. I think you lost all credibility with this sentence, Florio. Soccer dad upset by nearby football practice. Go figure.

  13. I love football and want only the best for players.

    I do not, however, see the need for children under 12 playing organized contact football. I think that if we are going to allow vulnerable youths to play a very dangerous sport, we should reduce it to flag football for young folks under 12 – this way they can still play, can still develop some skills, but not be subjected to as intense and unnecessary hits. And since these hits have a cumulative effect, this will reduce the damage.

    Something must also be done at levels of football below college to mitigate impacts to youth. I have no intent to chickify sports, but if there are ways to alternate players on possessions to limit touches and hits, then this must be done. There is an ever growing disparity between fat and oversized players and average ones.

    I also think that in the area of girls’ soccer, they should be forced to wear helmets and to have headers made illegal – since we now know that women are not created equal and their weak necks are causing problems in their sports.

    Concussions are serious business – allow ADULTS who wish to play and to assume responsibility for potential damage have the say; youth should be protected at all costs – even if we dumb down their sports to protect them – whether through extra equipment, rotating series, implementing flag football, etc.

  14. As a rugby coach of kids that age, I did some of the things that Florio is complaining about. But guess what, teaching them to be better players in a physical sport involves encouraging them to totally commit to tackling and being tackled, anything less can be dangerous in fact. Intimidating the opposition (through legal means) and teaching them to not be intimidated themselves is important to learn.

    The important thing is that they go into contact correctly and safely, and until they tackle with correct technique they were not allowed to enter a game. The harder they hit, the less likely they are to be hurt.

    Unfortunately, a generation of spoiled and pampered kids has lead to an attitude of “you can’t tell me what to do”. Continuing to treat them in this manner will not help them as the grow up. Sometimes being tougher with them (obviously within reason) is the right thing to do.

  15. Junior high football for me was the *exact* experience that Florio described.

    The closest thing to a water break we got was the team trainer rinsing out our mouth guard – and we were ordered to spit out the water. Water breaks were for the weak — that’s what we were taught, and so we believed it.

    And yes, one of the guys got chased around the track by the assistant coach (an NFL washout) who kicked him in the tail anytime he slowed down.

    Looking back, those two coaches were two of the weakest people I’ve known in my life. I still have friends from way back when, and the mere mention of those idiotic Lombardi wannabes screaming at pre-pubescent kids gets howls of laughter.

    There’s a lot of things young kids can learn from youth sports. Goal setting, fair play, self-respect, how really coming together as one team makes success more likely, learning to win (and lose) with class, dignity, and civility. That’s all hugely important stuff.

    Also – just the basic stuff of learning how to execute a play … it teaches kids thinking skills and problem solving skills.

    And then there’s really, really basic stuff … learning to pass, punt, catch, and run … that stuff is directly related to devlopment in other (non sports) areas of the brain. To follow the speed and arc of a ball and catch it, you have to do a little math equation in your head.

    The big lesson for kids that age is how to be a team – loyalty and respect.

    Unfortunately there are a lot of moronic Lombardi wannabes who think teaching pure aggression is the same thing as teaching respect and teamwork.

    Coaches who talk and behave like that at the Pop Warner/Pee Wee/grade school level need to go see a friggin shrink. They’ve got no business being around kids that age.

  16. I’m looking forward to Florio Jr launching next fall, but I’m pretty disappointed that one of my favorite sports journalists is complaining about a youth football coach telling his kids to be ‘mean’ and ‘nasty’.

    When I was 12 years old (27 now) I made the switch from soccer to football. My coaches were mean as hell and I came home every day with deep bruises from my wrists to my shoulders. My parents begged me to quit, and after 4 days I began to question whether I had what it took to be a football player.

    After getting run-over for the 5th time in one practice, I remember being so frustrated that I started to take off my helmet. My head coach (who probably only knew my name because of the piece of tape across my helmet) sprinted over, snatched me up by the facemask, and went ballistic.

    “What do you think you are doing?? You are going to quit on your team??” He yelled. “Next time, GET LOW! Put your body through his body and dont stop driving until I blow the whistle!”

    As cliche and ridiculous as this may sound, I literally became a man at that moment. Coach “Rooster” did something to me that I will never forget. For the next 7 years of my life I was pound-for-pound the most ruthless, hard-hitting, sound-tackler on any team that I played for.

    Youth football taught me what real brotherhood was, and I will forever be in debt to the hardass coaches who never went easy on me. I hope that ‘old-school’ mentality never goes away because at the end of the day, football is a passionate game that should only be played by passionate people.

    If you don’t teach your players to be mean, they are going to get trucked by players who were taught to play the game the right way.

  17. I coach youth football. Every youth coach I know understands the value of hydrating the players, and I have never seen anyone withhold water.

    I have never seen a coach put his hands on a player.

    On our team we do not motivate players by yelling at them. We teach proper technique in tackling and blocking, and put the safety of the kids as our first priority.

    In the past three seasons, the most serious injury suffered by one of our players was a knee sprain.

    I have spoken to a number of parents who do not allow their kids to participate, but think nothing of taking their kids to the slopes for skiing, and have seen several come back with broken legs, and one with a broken back.

    Observe practice, if the coaching philosophy does not mesh with your own, find another team.

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