Youth football: Common sense is always an option

Are youth tackle football programs appropriate for our children? Photo: (AP Photo/Paul Spinelli)

WEST PALM BEACH, FL, November 18, 2013 — Recently, youth football programs have come under scrutiny regarding safety issues revolving around head injuries resulting from tackling collisions. The heightened level of public attention to youth football has been fired by negative publicity related to brain injuries or diminished capacities in professional football players. 

As a result, many parents and medical personnel are asking serious questions about the advisability of tackle football as a viable youth sport choice.

Because youth tackle football is so culturally ingrained in American culture, it is unlikely to be eliminated from the youth sport menu. But, it is likely that an increasing number of Americans will begin to question its appropriateness. What may be reasonable, is to expect some significant modifications and options which protect very young kids from a “high injury risk environment” in a number of contexts and age levels.

USA Football, with the support of the National Football League, has developed a “Heads Up Football” program featuring proper tackling and blocking standards, concussion awareness, and coaching certification. 

But, are programs like this, even with their awareness and concern for serious injury prevention, appropriate for the youngest of the children who may be developmentally ill-suited to withstand the rigors of collision-based sports like football?  Certainly, boxing which is based on the skill to deliver concussive blows to the head and body of an opponent, is not advocated as a healthy form of youth sport by those who conduct youth sport programs and is shunned almost universally by parents as a safe sport choice for their children.

Dr. Robert Cantu’s book, Concussions and Our Kids: America’s Leading Expert on How to Protect Young Athletes and Keep Sports Safe (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), co-authored by Mark Hyman, raises numerous concerns about the health consequences of repeated head trauma in children and adults in collision sports. He recommends that parents hold children out of tackle football until they reach the age of 12 or 13.  He states, “Youngsters have big heads and weak necks, and that bobblehead-doll setup puts them at a much greater risk for concussion.  That’s especially true for ages five to eight.”  He adds, “You cannot condition the brain to taking blow.”  He also warns against relying on better helmets for youngsters as a way to solve the problem, “That’s because the most injurious acceleration the brain can get is a rotational one, where the head is spun violently. The helmets don’t do very much at all about attenuating those forces.” 

Some organizations like the American Flag Football Association and NFL Flag Football, provide non-tackle and non-blocking programs for children. Some flag football programs use modified shield blocking techniques where players cannot leave their feet and many utilize protective head gear, similar to those worn by cyclists and skateboarders. 

Many parents see these options as more appropriate for the youth football game, especially for children 6-10 years of age, because it eliminates bone crunching torso tackling and helmet to body and helmet to helmet collisions. These programs feature 5-7 person teams, emphasizing passing, running, receiving, chasing, dodging, jumping, interception, and offensive and defensive team coordination skills; all the skills required to develop football skills except one, intentionally planned collision which are the central focus of tackle football. 

Perhaps it is in the development of these modified versions of traditional youth sport forms, especially for elementary school children, 6-12 years of age, which provide a developmentally appropriate, safe, and sensible transitional pathway to traditional adolescent sport participation.


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Gary T. Barrette Ed. D.

Gary T. Barrette Ed. D., (Columbia University), Professor, Florida Atlantic University, Professor, Adelphi University (retired), Former Dean, United States Sports Academy, Co-author Coach Smart Performance 477: A Youth Sport Coaching Manual (2013), Co-editor of Myths, Models and Methods in Sport Pedagogy (1987), and Vice President, Elite Coaching Consultants.  

Contact Gary T. Barrette Ed. D.

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