Questions to Consider Before Letting Your Child Play Youth Football

Andrew Garda@andrew_gardaFeatured ColumnistFebruary 27, 2012

9 Dec 1998:  General view of the coin toss during the Pop Warner Pee Wee Football Super Bowl at Disney Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida. Mandatory Credit: Scott Halleran  /Allsport
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

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.

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.

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.

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 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?

ORLANDO, FL - DECEMBER 9:  Deonte #50 tries to tacckle  #22 John Salazac Jr. both of the Peewee football League  during the Pop Warner Super Bowl at the Disney Wide World Of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida on December 9th 1998. (Photo by:  Scott Haller
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

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.

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 week nights 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.

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.

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.

How do I Support Without Becoming the Next Craig James/Marv Marinovich?

Ah, helicopter dads.

Some people aren't fans of Helicoptor Parents
Some people aren't fans of Helicoptor ParentsEthan Miller/Getty Images

One day, when I have millions of hours of free time (which is to say, never), I will start a blog called HelicopterParents.com and fill it with all the horrible and ridiculous things I have seen parents do in many, many different sports.

How can you be supportive without crossing the line? Sure, invoking James and Marinovich is pure hyperbole, but I've seen parents do some pretty stupid things.

It can be a fine line between cheering your child on and pushing them too hard, harassing their coach for more playing time, and shouting plays to the kids on the field.

I once saw a dad pull his kid out of a basketball huddle at halftime to coach him up, while the coach was talking. That's not even the worst of it, but I can't repeat the rest without dropping language we here at Bleacher Report try to avoid.

There are a few ways to avoid this.

First, make sure your child is your guide. Learn your kid's limits and respect them. I'm not saying you can't push them to do better, I'm saying don't be the parent haranguing their kid when they are in tears and begging to stop playing.

I'm saying be the parent who focuses on the positive, not the negative. You can point out where he or she can play better. Just don't make that the only thing you point out.

I am in constant dialogue with my son. He's expressed an interest in playing college ball, and that's great (he's 10, next week he could want to be Eddie Van Halen). He's asked for my help, but I make sure he knows that he is in control, not me. If he tells me "Dad, enough," then I back off.

That hasn't happened yet, but that's not the point. He needs to know if it does happen, I will listen.

Second, let the coaches coach.

Both last season's coach and my son's new coach have welcomed parent involvement overall, but also have been clear that, on the field, our kids are now their kids. The coaches are in charge.

You want to work on catching the ball, tackling, running routes with your kid? Great. Do it outside practice or game. Sure, you can sneak little tips in during a water break—my son always checks in and asks if he did this or that right. But you can't do it when the coach is coaching.

Maybe you think I'm being ridiculous, but I see it all the time.

Here's another thing about letting the coaches coach—be careful not to contradict what they are doing. If I'm going over something with my son and he tells me they do it differently, then I learn how they do it and that's what we practice.

Finally, control yourself. Again, you think it's simple but something happens to a great many parents—moms as well as dads—when a game starts. They start out cheering and the next thing you know they sound like that obnoxious fan two rows behind you at an NFL game, screaming at the refs, the coaches, the kids and other parents.

The Incredible Hulk looks at these parents and says "Dude, seriously?"

Look, I get it because we all get lost in the heat of the moment when the game is close and the ref blows a call/a kid fumbles the ball/the coach calls a bad play.

You feel your temper rising? Walk away, cool off, breathe. Come back and cheer.

Because that's all your kids want to hear. They want you to cheer. They don't need you screaming about a missed tackle. They'll probably beat themselves up without your help.

If you need to be more involved, get more involved by coaching or becoming a team parent.

What Sort of Conditioning is Suitable for Still-Developing Bodies to Help Prepare Them for the Rigors of Even a Youth Football Season?

This is, to me, a dicey issue because it's really easy to screw it up. Many parents will assume that getting your kid in shape is much like getting yourself in shape. However, their bodies—even teenagers—respond to certain exercises much differently than adults.

Dr. Bramel cautions parents to ease into it. "Grade-school age kids and teenagers can be prone to overuse injuries if they do too much, too quickly."

In my experience, coaches suggest keeping it real simple. Stretching exercises, sit-ups, push-ups and jogging to build endurance.

Coach Serrette feels the same way about not going overboard. "You see people buy tons of equipment but most of those people cannot move their own body weight."

"I am a big fan of body weight exercises," he says. "You will see me do planks, burpees, mountain climbers with the players."

Core exercises are key as well, something that I learned watching players train under Travelle Gaines several years ago in California.

"It is the key to overall fitness," agrees Coach Serrette, "That is what the entire core craze is about. People spend all this time working body parts but you need to do more things that work your entire body."

Again, I remind parents to keep an eye on their child's limitations.

Keep in mind that your child will be working out multiple times a week with their team. So once the season starts, I make sure my son cuts back to an easy routine of sit-ups and push-ups a few times a week and I make sure he listens to his body.

If he's too sore, he skips.

With football, the mentality is to play through pain, but for a child that can be dangerous. If it hurts, you have to give it attention (this goes for conditioning as well as in-season injuries).

"Pain is the body telling you to pay attention to the area of the body that hurts," Bramel reminds us. "If simple things like rest, ice, stretching and/or a short course of anti-inflammatories don’t alleviate the symptoms, talk to the trainer or see a doctor before returning to play and risking further injury."

Bramel also suggests that before you start any regimen, you speak with your child's doctor for advice. I would add that you should talk to their coaches as well. Remember, these are resources and they will have practical experience that can help you avoid mistakes.

Check Your Expectations

You are about to spend an awful lot of time as your child plays football. If they fall in love with it, you could be doing this for years on end. So it's natural to wonder where it's all leading.

Can my child play in high school? If they're good enough, could college ball be a possibility? Will they play in junior college? Division II? FCS? Maybe even FBS?

What about the pros?

As I have said several times in this piece, it may seem crazy to you, but I see parents (and kids) get carried away all the time.

One thing Coach Serrette does is send his parents a little reality check in the form of a link to an NCAA study which lists the percentages of high school athletes in several sports who make it to the collegiate and pro levels.

I was surprised to get this but realized that for many parents, there isn't always a guidepost on where this could all lead. What is pretty common knowledge given my line of work is not always obvious to other parents.

Coach Serrette doesn't do this to discourage parents or kids, but to give them a realistic idea of what they face.

"I always tell my players the same thing. Do not shoot for the pros, shoot for college." 

Using football to get an education is certainly attainable for many players according to Coach Serrette.

"There as tons of colleges that will give you money to play for them in the FCS or D-III and I have had more of my players that have gone to smaller schools and received a free education than I have had gone to the FCS schools. I think the goal should always be to play to get that money for college because THAT is truly doable."

Like everything else, it's important to go into this with both your and your child's eyes wide open. Not every child becomes the next Drew Brees, or even Danny Amendola. Many children can use football to help further their education.

What is the Right Team/League for My Child?

CARLSBAD, CA - NOVEMBER 9:  A coach of the Carlsbad Mighty Lancers (8&under) consoles one of his players after his team's loss to the Torrey Pines Falcons during the Pop Warner Division Finals on November 9, 2002 at Carlsbad High School, in Carlsbad, Cali
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

This is a critical question, maybe the most critical because it combines a lot of what we've already talked about.

If you're like me, you may not be spoiled for choice. We didn't have many teams within a reasonable distance from where we live in Queens. We lucked into what I feel is a great organization in the Queens Falcons.

If you have a choice—and hopefully you do—you need to research those choices as thoroughly as possible. Search for the organization's website (most have them now). Call and talk to the president of the group. Talk to the coaches your child will play under. Attend a practice or two.

Many teams will allow a child to try out for a practice or two to see if they want to really play. I assure you that a lot of kids will know the moment they get hit whether this is the sport for them.

Even though we were really looking at just one team, I did all the above. I read everything on the website. I emailed the Falcons' president. I talked to the coaches. We went to check out the practice.

Think hard about what you're looking for in a team, how much practice you feel comfortable with, the personality of the coaches, the personality of the kids—heck, the personality of the other parents.

Other parents, by the way, are an excellent resource. While your child is talking to his potential teammates and watching drills, chat with the other parents. More often than not, they are very friendly and happy to tell you what the score is with the team you are looking at.

Even if you do all of the above, you could very well decide to sign up and, midway through the season, decide that this isn't the league for you and your child.

That's fine. You can always continue the search the next offseason, now armed with an even better idea of what you're looking for.

Even if your child plays a minuscule amount of time, the key is that any team they join is a place where your child can enjoy themselves.

"I try my best, although it is not easy, to make everyone feel a part of the team," says Coach Serrette. "It does not matter if you play 40 minutes or two, you are a part of the family. You will see that as they get older no one remembers many grand stories of their accomplishments, but they can relive many laughs and jokes from practice."

What's the Upside Here? What Is My Child Going to Get out of Playing Youth Football?

Aside from the obvious physical benefits of conditioning and physical activity in a world which sees a greater and greater percentage of childhood obesity, as well as far more interest in playing video games than being outside, youth football has a greater benefit.

Let me illustrate with another anecdote about my son.

My kid plays a lot of different sports because he's a natural athlete and he just loves to play. In fact, as much as he loves football, he's played basketball since he was six or seven.

He's normally a very quiet guy on the court. He's an OK player who tends to let others take the lead on the court and is rarely vocal (unless, as kids are wont to do, he's complaining about a non-call). He's had the same coach for three years now and that coach has been begging him to step up and be more of a leader. It didn't happen the first two years, which is fine. We figured, it's not his thing.

Just over a week ago, he stepped onto the court for his first game of the season and I have to tell you, he was a totally different player. He played more confidently, took more shots, played more physically, and was far more vocal than I have ever seen him playing any sport prior to football.

9 Dec 1998:  General view of a player from Redwood City, California celebrates during the Pop Warner Pee Wee Football Super Bowl at Disney Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida. Mandatory Credit: Scott Halleran  /Allsport
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Confidence. That's what it was. The first thing his basketball coach said to me after the game was, "That's football for you."

If your child plays, chances are you will see a huge difference in their self-esteem and confidence. The change in my son, while also a part of growing up, comes in large part to the confidence he gained playing youth football.

The environment, the intensity, the pure joy of achievement after all the practices, sweat, bruises and hard hits—at the other end of it, knowing that you took everything someone could throw at you and walk away—that's a big deal.

Your child will also learn what it's like to be on a team—a true team where you know that the guys around you  deserve your best effort, because that's what they give you.

Coach Serrette believes it's an important part of a boy's development. "The biggest benefit of youth football is the teaching of responsibility...it's about the first true introduction into what it means to be a man in society."

Like football, being a man, Coach Serrette says, isn't always easy but has its rewards.

"At the end of the day the score means little, but the team, the family, trumps the needs of you as an individual. Understanding that prepares you for fatherhood."

The coach knows he's getting a little deep for his charges, but thinks the lessons will linger anyway. "I know an 11-year-old may not see it that way, but it's the truth and it is a collective lesson of maturity and responsibility, that they will carry throughout the rest of their life—if they get it and what we are selling."

CARLSBAD, CA - NOVEMBER 9:  The Carlsbad Charging Lancers celebrate their 18-0 win over the San Dieguito Ravens during the Pop Warner Division Finals on November 9, 2002 at Carlsbad High School, in Carlsbad, California. The Lancers' have a 10-0 record thi
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

There are many other benefits you get from a team sport—working towards a common goal, dealing with success and failure.

However, the rigors of youth football can prepare a child for much more. I truly believe, in the right situation, it can build a child up with such confidence, they will believe anything is possible.

And that confidence will serve them well, regardless of what they do long after football is done.

It's clear that I think highly of the benefits of youth football. I've seen the positives with my own eyes and believe it is a great way to build character, confidence and conditioning.

It's also not for every kid or every parent. More than anything else, you have to make sure that the choice is the right one for your family and your child.


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