Questions to Consider Before Letting Your Child Play Youth Football (part 1)

image via How Stuff Works

So it’s that time of year, the time when many families are putting together their schedules for the fall and deciding what activities their children will take part in.

As a football writer and a huge fan of the game with two boys, I am often asked how comfortable I am having Alpha Tween play tackle football with all the concussion concerns at the collegiate and pro levels.

So a year and a half ago I was asked by a site called Bleacher Report to pen the article you are about to read. I’m reprinting the whole thing here, but you can always head over there to see it as well as all the other stuff I do.

And I am more than happy to tackle any concerns or comments you have as well.  (sidenote: I’ll be helping assist the coaches on Alpha Tween’s team this season.)

It’s a long article so I split it into two parts. I’ll post the other one later this afternoon.


It’s a struggle more and more parents are dealing with every year: Should I let my child play football?

I know it may seem a bit soon, but early sign-ups are just around the corner, and many teams (my son’s included) are running winter team workouts as we speak.

Once upon a time the answer was simple. If your son (or in some cases these days, daughter) wanted to play football, then gear up, pop in a mouthpiece and off they go.

No more.

We’re busier now than ever before and time is hard to come by. Children have a ton of schoolwork to keep up with and we are all worried about over-scheduling them at a young age.

Of course, there is the question of the physical toll football can take, something we’re more aware of now than ever before.

Image via Harvard Medical School

As the NFL and NFLPA learn about and discuss the long-term effects of concussions, and doctors and trainers publish articles on the dangers of focusing on one sport alone, all parents will need to do their due diligence before giving their child the green light.

There are questions you have to ask when your kid decides they want to play youth football. Today, I’m going to tackle some of the most important ones and help my fellow parents do the one thing they must do before making any decision: get informed.

First, a little background about me beyond what you see in my B/R profile. I have two kids, one of which began playing tackle football this past fall. He wasn’t going to do it—which was fine by me and my wife—but changed his mind mid-summer. So we did our research and dove in.

It was an eye-opening experience in many ways, despite the fact that I, more than many parents, know what is involved in a football season.

I’ll get into this more later, but for all the hard work and time-consuming aspects of this past season, it was an incredibly fulfilling experience for both my son and I. I’m not saying it will be for everyone, but it can be.

Hopefully I, along with some experts, can help you navigate your way to the right decision for you, your family and, most importantly, your child.

Here are the questions I think parents most need to consider before they gear their child up for a season of youth football.


Is there a Right Age for My Child to Become Involved in Tackle Football?

I make a distinction between tackle and flag (or two-hand touch) leagues, as the games are very different. I know, you’re thinking, “Well, yeah,” but if you haven’t played or know someone who has played, figure that even then you are underestimating how different.

Image via bayouthfootball.com

I do recommend having a child learn the basics in a flag league first, so they get a taste of it. I did that with my son and I believe it helped him get the basics—different defenses, offensive theories and plays—down so he was a step up transitioning to full-on contact.

There are two aspects of this question that I believe you must consider: physical and mental/emotional.

Like flag and tackle, these are two different entities and your child might be more prepared in one way than the other. In both cases, the answer varies from kid to kid, but there are some general guidelines.

“There are reasons for parents to be concerned about collision sports at any age,” I was told by Jene Bramel, a fellow Footballguys.com staffer and a doctor who has worked on the sidelines as a team physician for a local high school football team since 2006.

“Younger kids aren’t as likely to generate enough torque and force to tear ligaments or severely strain muscles, but broken bones and concussions are possibilities at any age.”

Dr. Bramel suggests that parents consider their child’s development as they decide. Do they know how to protect themselves well when hitting or being hit? Do they know how to fall? Can they focus during practice to learn these techniques from their coaches?

“After that,” Bramel says,”every parent has a different comfort level with injury. Some parents are comfortable allowing their child to play football at the peewee level, others prefer to wait until closer to middle school age.”

Dr. Bramel says to remember that every sport—soccer, basketball, baseball, hockey, lacrosse, etc.—carries a risk of injury. Football may carry some more risk, but your child can be injured playing just about anything.

image via randyjarosz.blogspot.com

For myself, I was worried about how my son’s body would hold up to the practices and drilling as much as the hitting. I knew it could be a grueling season for him and was determined to monitor him closely.

It was actually far more intense than I expected (more on that in a minute) but he rose to the occasion and was a lot less of an issue than expected.

Emotionally, I was also concerned for my son. He was a physical kid, prone to rough-horsing around, but aside from a few scuffles in the schoolyard, had never been hit. Certainly not like he would here.

A lot of parents forget that aspect of football. “Tackle football is a mental game more than physical,” Queens Falcons coach John Serrette told me.

Coach Serrette has been coaching in the Queens and New York City area since he was 16, becoming the President of the Rosedale Jets at 21 and coaching the Bayside Raiders to a Pee Wee championship in 1999.

He runs his own website, 3ointstance.com, on which he loads instructional videos and other footage to support his players and parents. In the interest of full disclosure, he’s also my son’s coach.

“It is a game where you have to conquer your fears at the door and believe that as one unit you will be trying to attain a goal and that goal is not winning,” he stated. “It is perfect execution of what you are taught. If you execute what you are taught on offense and on defense, the result will be what it needs to be. It is scary for the child at first but again, they get used to it and have to overcome their fears.”

This was my experience with my son.

I talked to him a few times about the rigors of a game and practice. How you can become exhausted mentally as well as physically and how it can be difficult to stay focused for an entire practice, much less a game.

I also wanted him to know that if it was too much, he could let me and the coaches know. While I’d prefer him to finish the season—he’d made a commitment to his team, after all—I’d never force him to do something he didn’t like.

In my opinion, this is critical and both Coach Serrette and Dr. Bramel agree.

Your child has to know they can tell you “enough.” They (and you) have no idea how they’ll respond to that first hit. Or the second. Or the 50th.

You may think your child is a tough little guy, and he or she may break on that first hit. You might think your child isn’t

image via Examiner.com

going to last a snap and they may fall in love with colliding with a ball carrier.

Either way, you have to give them an out. How do you know if your child is emotionally and mentally ready? Can he take instruction? Can he take criticism? Can he hold together when the going gets tough?

All those questions are ones you can answer. Still, you have to be prepared for those answers to be wrong the moment that first hit happens.


How Worried Should I be About Concussions?

It’s the hot-button topic of the decade in football, and it should be a concern for every parent. I don’t mean to scare you at all, but it has to be on your mind.

Dr. Bramel agrees. “There’s still much development that happens in the grade school and teen years. Head trauma, even when mild, can affect that development, especially when there are multiple injuries.”

Proper technique and equipment are vital. The technique is ultimately in the hands of the coaches, as will the equipment be at times. However, there are certainly some things you can do to help your child avoid concussions, including making sure they have a properly fitted helmet and chin strap, as well as wearing a mouthpiece on every play.

image via cdn4.sportngin.com

I’ll go a bit further. My son’s league requires a mouthpiece for every player, on every play. I would hesitate to play in a league or team that didn’t.

As we know, players will get their “bell rung” on occasion, and Dr. Bramel says that a child who experiences that—even if they just have a mild headache—must be carefully watched and screened before returning to action.

“It’s just as important to have a healthy respect for head injuries and to keep a watchful eye for even mild occurrences,” says Bramel.

Of course, concussions aren’t the only way your child can get hurt. So I asked Dr. Bramel if there was any way parents can limit injuries, especially through other pieces of equipment like flack vests or rib protectors.

“Parents shouldn’t feel the need to wrap their kids in Kevlar before allowing them to play football,” he says. “If the concern is that high, football may not be the right sport for their child.”

Dr. Bramel did follow that up by saying that thigh and hip pads can help prevent bruising that can lead to other injuries, and “forearm pads, neck rolls and other pads can be helpful depending on the position the child plays.”

So while it is impossible to prevent every injury, we can mitigate some of them with a little extra precaution.

Still, one things must be abundantly clear: this is a collision sport. Players intentionally run into each other as hard as they can. People get hurt. Your child will get banged up and bruised, ankles tweaked and fingers crushed.

If that makes you cringe, I echo what Dr. Bramel said—this may not be the sport for you.


What Kind of Time Commitment Should I Expect?

Every league is different, but across the board I can say you will be looking at a significant amount of your child’s time taken up with practices. That’s your time too; you or your husband/wife will be shuttling your kid back and forth to practices as well as games, some of which are on the road.

If that makes you cringe more than the thought of your kid having a 125-pound tackle fall on them, again, this may not be for you.

I will be totally honest here. I knew it was a big time commitment and I was still under-prepared.

My son’s team practiced three times a week—twice on weeknights and once on Saturday morning. Then there were games on Sunday. The practices generally ran about 90 minutes and Saturday were normally two hours.

That’s a huge chunk of time. Consider that this is on top of school and schoolwork (which, for his organization, was a big deal. You don’t do well in school, you don’t play) as well as all other activities.

image via BostonGlobe.com

Twice a week I scrambled to get out of work, drive to pick my son up from his after-school program, get my other son from his after-school program, then drive to practice, which was about 30 minutes away with traffic.

That’s a lot. Now factor in weather, feeding both kids, entertaining the one not playing, and the occasional team-building

bowling trip and suddenly you’re wondering when you signed up for football instead of your kid.

The truth is, you signed up the moment he did. This can be a serious time commitment, even for the littlest guys. You can help alleviate some of the duties by doing things like finding carpool partners, but it’s still a lot of time.

So the two things to consider here are the following.

First, can your child handle the time commitment? I mentioned what can be required of them—multiple practices on top of homework, school and other activities. Remember also that your child will be learning plays and schemes which will be mentally taxing in their own right.

Second, are you willing to sacrifice your time—your evenings, your weekends, your free time—to make this happen for your kid?

Can you find leagues that require less than ours does? Probably. That’s certainly another option. But I will say that the older your kid gets, the more frequent the practices get. So at some point, the question still stands.

Good coaches will give you the tools to help both your child and yourself.

image via youthmuse.com

Last season, my son’s coach made sure the kids were doing what they needed to in school and was in contact with the parents via the team mom to make sure we knew what was going on at all times. He didn’t need us out there at practice, but liked us there because it gave our kids a visual reminder that, hey, we’re here for you.

Coach Serrette told me that, really, that’s much of what a coach wants.

“For a parent, I expect more of the mental support of reinforcing what we teach your child during the week. It is not easy and we will throw a lot of terms at them and we just hope that you help support the staff that way,” he said.

As I mentioned earlier, Coach Serrette utilizes a website to keep his players and parents informed of the goings on. There’s so much, and he doesn’t want anyone lost.

“I always try to keep my parents informed on the ‘why’ I do things. What to look for in the videos on 3pointstance.com—where I load all the game videos as well as instructional videos to help the players to understand our concepts—and how they can improve their child’s performance.”

Every coach supports their team and parents in different ways, just as every parent supports their child in different ways.

Together, parents and coaching staff have to have the child’s back when it comes to making sure they have the emotional, mental, as well as physical support they need.


So that’s the end of part one. Part two will post later and deal largely with helping your kids get mentally and physically ready, choosing what league is right for your family and what to expect you and your child to get out of youth sports.


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