Photo by Dayna Olton
“I would never let my child play tackle football.” This statement along with, “Kids get more concussions in soccer than they do in football,” have become the opposing, polarizing, cliché responses from parents on either side defending their decision to let their child play tackle football or not. I hope this post will provide some perspective from all angles. While my goal is to provide a perspective from both sides, I choose not to defend the game by getting into the “more concussions in soccer” conversation. But rather, point out that because of the inherent risks, it naturally reinforces discipline, accountability, brotherhood, and “the grind” to young boys unlike anything else. It is the ultimate teaching tool and why I allow my 8-year-old son to play football.
My son has now played full contact football for 3 seasons. I was a youth and high school coach long before my son was born. So truth be told, he never had a choice. He was born into a football family, played Madden since he was 4, and was tangled up on the sidelines as a toddler during a practice. Luckily he bounced right up, scared and shaken. As a parent, isn’t this at what we really want? As parents we all know that there are trials in life, at times we unknowingly get complicated by life events, however by and large bounce up and bounce back. Even through his birthright surviving the sidelines of my practices, it didn’t mean that he would become a football player or my worst fear, that he wouldn’t like it. Now as an adult, I know I love football. While my son loves football, it still didn’t mean that at 6 years old, he’d embrace the grind that comes with practicing a minimum of 3 times a week. It didn’t mean that he would like the contact or the aggressiveness that is taught and reinforced. Make no mistake; it is always better to “be the hammer and not the nail.” But as a coach I knew that at some point he’d “be the nail”. Even the best that have ever played from Jim Brown to Orlando Pace have been “a nail” at some point. Its this lack of control that scares all of us. Thus began my mental wrangling that now comes with deciding if my son should play this game, and then came, “So what if he does like it, would he be safe?
As a coach I’m far more familiar with the risks than most people. In 2009 while coaching for the Fillmore Raiders, a Simi Valley Vikings player, 10 year old, David Sumner died after suffering a subdural hematoma during a routine practice. According to reports it was a freak accident that didn’t occur during hitting drills and it rattled the youth football community. It is truly a coach’s and parents worst nightmare. So when I think about the risks of allowing my son to play football, I don’t think about the long term effects of sub-concussive hits or concussions; the first thing I thought about was David Sumner.
At the time my son was about to start his “football life” the NFL was knee deep in a PR crisis as they tried to keep a lid on a newly coined disease by the name of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE. The reason I am a “self declared” expert is because even though I coached football for years and have always had my players best interest at heart, it wasn’t until I first registered my then 6 year old, that I started to do real research on CTE. CTE is a brain disease that is caused by repetitive, cuncussive and sub-concussive blows. While football was the key driver of the study a few years ago and has become the easy target, it has since been found in athletes that never played football.
USA Football and the NFL know that Mom’s own the keys to their football kingdom. So in an effort to win the hearts and minds of moms and provide a means to curb concussions and ultimately CTE, USA Football released and promoted their “Heads-Up Football” program in 2012. I remember sitting in GCYFL (Gold Coast Youth Football League) board meeting consisting of over 20 local football chapter presidents and representatives when they announced it. I sarcastically blurted out, “Since when have any of us taught kids to tackle with their heads down?” I am a fan of the NFL. I have been all my life and I’m all about the unequivocal technique of teaching kids to tackle with their heads up simply because up until the big topic of concussions started becoming mainstream, the collective fear among coaches were and still are spinal injuries stemming from damaged vertebrates in the neck. I’m all about the promotion of good form tackling but I don’t know of any coach, good or bad, that ever taught their kids to hit and tackle with their heads down. Most, if not all, teach kids to literally tackle with their heads up but not necessarily because of the “Heads-Up Football” program. In 2015 USA Football released an independent study that showed that the program reduced injuries by 76% and concussions by 30%. Subsequently, in July a New York Times report dispelled the success of USA Football’s program. So why then do I subject my child to such risks?
It’s easy; football will test my son like nothing else. It has taught him decision making skills under fire, and under pressure. He’s also subsequently learned that those decisions sometimes don’t always work out. It will also put some responsibility on his little shoulders. As kids (and adults) continue to live in their social media silos, Football provides a sense of community and camaraderie like nothing else. I’ve coached tackle football at the youth and high school levels on and off for about 14 football seasons as I have also been a father for almost 9. I’ve coached kids from all socioeconomic backgrounds. From kids that live in the country club to kids that live in the hood. Parents that are government officials to single parent households and a few that have had parents in prison. The diversity alone is one of the best qualities of football. It really is a cross-section of America. All football parents have one thing in common; all want their kids to feel what its like to grind, work hard, and be pushed. Because of football’s physicality there is no other sport that can put this into perspective for kids. In addition, I feel what drives this is the fact that if you’re accountable, you’ll be a good teammate. If your child is accountable on the field and they care about the well being of the player lined up next them or behind them then they can apply this to life, just caring for the guy next to them, enduring them ultimately as winners. This is the bond that I preach to my teams. This is the “The Brotherhood” that is football. The success (or failure) on a football team depends on everyone doing their job and kids are amazingly resilient, eventually developing a hierarchy within the team dynamic and one of honesty. It’s through the struggle and success that this dynamic is tested, honed, and forged. Sometimes its great and sometimes the coaches need to intervene, but again the key takeaway is that their job not only means the difference between success and failure but also someone getting physically crushed.
So I did my research, and made the decision (along with my wife) to let him play football. And this is where the rubber meets the road. The coaches that I know that have kids between the ages of 6-10 all wrestle with the same decision that all of us do as “Dad-Coach”. Most football coaches that I know don’t push their kids to play and it’s not because of the risks. We all know what it entails. We all know that football is not for everyone. I think that while coaches want our kids to play football, we all wrestle with the fact that once they are in, they’re in. They are now subject to the violence, the rigors of the game; the contact, the hitting drills, the conditioning, the commitment, and there are no cutting corners. The same accountability that you hold other players to is now going to reveal all that’s great about your kid and all that isn’t so great. So while all of us want our kids to succeed, football exposes strengths and weaknesses like no other, and its up to a good coach find a spot for each athlete while riding that fine line between pushing and pulling in order to extract the best out of your child. Your child will get criticized, perhaps even for the first time. Watching a coach be critical of your child isn’t an easy, period especially if your child is 6. The coach should be age appropriate but still able to hold your child accountable. Good coaches will lift the kids up. Great coaches will make your son or daughter feel valued no matter how much or how little they play. Great coaches will help your child reach their genetic apex. Great coaches will need your help to communicate with your child to do so. If your child struggles with the way your coach pushes and pulls, its up to the parent to let the coach know how they can be more effective.
Better, Safer Game
Here’s what’s great about where the game is headed, because it is changing for the better. Teams are hitting less in practice. Live contact is necessary but not every day. And while I don’t subscribe to not hitting at all, some teams like Dartmouth University use robots for contact days and only hit during games. Hitting drills every day isn’t good for any child. We limit tackling drills to one day per week and start to wind that down as we head into the playoffs. New rules have been put into place to minimize leading with the head for both offensive and defensive players. Coaches like me now teach kids to lead with the shoulder with some even resorting to a new tackling technique developed by Seattle Seahawks coach, Pete Carroll known as the Roll-Tackle. New helmet technologies developed by manufacturers like Xenith and Riddell offer helmet systems that help disseminate impact. Virginia Tech now rates all helmets annually. Moreover, while I myself was skeptical about the “Heads Up Football” program, what it did do was create a default “zero-tolerance” policy when it comes to players that got their “bell rung”. It used to be an accepted practice at all levels that when a player was stunned, shaking it off, they would return to the game. This is now different. If a player is even remotely suspected of being dizzy or the player complains about having neck pains, they won’t return to the game. There are even leagues like ours that now subscribe to pre-season baseline concussion testing. All of these factors have made the game safer than before. Despite the risks this game, football is still the greatest sport in the world.