|Senior and Freshman football players, '94|
Many parents wonder whether they should allow their children to participate in football. Here's my view:
Advice No. 1: No one should play football in pads before eighth grade. This is the position taken by the American Academy of Pediatrics, and it's also the TMQ view, based on my experience as a county-league flag coach, a middle school (tackle) head coach and a father of two football players.
The juvenile brain case is weak because the skull has not finished maturing. Kids below eighth-grade age (age 12 or 13) run a high risk both of concussions and of the minor brain trauma that lacks immediate symptoms but does cumulative harm. Many concussions are not caused by single big hits but rather by the accumulated consequences of routine hits. Although youth players don't hit as fast or hard as older players, the brain case of a youth player is more vulnerable than an older player's.
The younger a player is, the lower his odds of benefiting from football. Football at ages 10, 11 or 12 is dominated by early-maturity boys; prep and college football tends to be dominated by late-maturity boys. (The best advice you can give anyone who wants to become a college football player is to start puberty late. One of the questions a smart recruiter asks is, "Has he started shaving?" The desired answer is no.) Because youth football is dominated by early-maturity boys, there is little relationship between who's good at age 10 or 11 and who's good as a high school senior. In youth football, early-maturity boys always outplay late-maturity boys: Neither group learns much. Kids in pads at youth-league ages are running a neurological risk -- this new study finds a rise in concussions in youth sports -- in return for a very low likelihood of reward.
Youth tackle football is usually of low quality -- often 22 boys falling down simultaneously. Many games are lopsided, owing to the best boys wanting to be on the top teams. But when a youth-league tackle football game ends 50-0, no one on the winning team has learned anything. Youth league football is sustained as much by the egos of the parent-coaches as by anything that happens on the field. And a youth league coach who's boasting about a 50-0 win is a guy who knows nothing at all about football.
Parents, have your kids play flag football until eighth grade. A good flag program teaches boys (and occasionally girls) how to be in the right place at the right time in a football game, and if children learn that by eighth grade, they have done well. When the high school feeder program starts at eighth grade, then switch to tackle. Parents, I did not allow either of my boys to put on pads until eighth grade.
Advice No. 2: Once high school is reached, be wary of monster coaches. Many high school football coaches do a great job. But many treat players in ways that would, legally, be child abuse if done by a teacher. Monster coaches don't teach, they only destroy boys' self-worth, and they might physically harm the boys through the punishment drills bad coaches impose.
How to spot a monster coach? Ask to attend a practice. A conscientious football coach is happy to have parents watching practice (although he won't talk to you during practice, so don't even think about it, and never bother the coach about your child's playing time). A coach who will not allow parents to observe practice is likely a monster coach. Unless your boy is a gifted athlete with great size or speed, someone who might draw college recruiting interest -- and be realistic, even most high school stars never get a college offer -- playing for a monster high school coach is a negative experience.
On the other hand, a losing season with a conscientious coach can be a positive experience. And a winning high school season with a kind, skillful coach is one of the finest things that can happen to a teen boy.
Advice No. 3: Parents, don't be afraid of football. There is risk involved in driving to the movies, but you let your kids go. For most high school and college players, football has more upside than downside. To reduce the downside, don't play tackle before eighth grade; be sure your son wears an advanced helmet (see below helmet item) even if you must buy it yourself; and, if your high school has a monster coach, walk away and don't look back.