“I have met the enemy and he is us,” – Walt Kelly, 1972.
I consider myself a football coach. Truly, I’m a business owner, a husband and a dad, but I’ve also coached football for over a decade. I started coaching flag football and was most recently the offensive coordinator for a high school team. I’ve written articles and lectured at clinics and produced football videos. Football is a great game, and no other sport offers life lessons for young men the way football does.
As you can imagine, it is disappointing to me that fewer and fewer kids are playing football. But why? Current wisdom says it is because parents are afraid of the risk of concussions. I disagree. The problem with youth and high school football is us.
It is third down and inches to go in the first quarter. The offensive team is already down 14-0 and has not yet made a first down in three possessions. This is the closest they have come to earning another set of downs. "They need to give the ball to No. 22 on a dive or power run,” I said to another dad watching the game.
I pegged him as the team’s best offensive player, as he was the only player to gain any positive yards in the team’s spread offense. “Blue, blue ... set ... hut.” The ball was snapped to the shotgun quarterback who turned and pitched the ball back to a sweeping No. 11. The defense swarmed and tackled the runner for a 4-yard loss, forcing a punt. The team wouldn't make a first down until the end of the game. The final score was 47-0.
This is why kids don’t play football.
The above scenario serves as a real example from a recent high school football game. It is wrong on so many levels. First, you’ll note the losing team was using a spread offense. From my observation, they had an undersized offensive line, no receiver threats on the outside, a quarterback who could scramble fairly well but could not throw well, and one sound running back. The line couldn't block well from their two-point stances and wide splits, and therefore had no chance to complete downfield passes or run any sort of option or counter play that took a moment to develop. So why run a spread offense? Because, I imagine, that’s what everyone else is doing.
“That’s coaching malpractice,” I said to the other dad after that tackle for a loss on third down. “That coach is not giving those kids any chance to succeed.” They are currently 0-6 on the season.
This is why kids don’t play football.
The reality is that kids have lots of ways to spend their time today. They can play organized sports, but they can also play video games, watch YouTube videos, Snapchat with their friends or engage in any number of other activities. In addition to simply having many choices, the lifestyle of kids today is very different then when I was younger. We now live in an “instant” society. People simply say a few words into an electronic device and get exactly what they want — answers to questions, movies tickets, songs and driving directions. Even food can be delivered simply by saying, “Alexa, order me a pizza.” Kids no longer have to visit a library to look things up, or wait until Saturday morning to watch cartoons, or wait until Christmas to get a new football. Everything comes instantly and there is no need to wait.
By contrast, playing football takes time and effort. Here in Connecticut, high school football starts in mid-August with a week of non-contact conditioning workouts followed by a week or so of “two-a-day” practices, Teams then typically begin preseason practices in pads. Some schools even travel for a few days to attend a football camp. Once school starts, the typical practice is two to two and a half hours long, Monday through Thursday, with a game being played on Friday night, which, for the players, is really an extension of the regular school day which starts at 7:50 a.m. There's also film review and sometimes a JV game or a light practice on Saturday.
This schedule will last through Thanksgiving or beyond if your team makes the playoffs. In addition to this in-season schedule, the offseason consists of spring practices, strength and conditioning and summer 7-on-7 passing leagues.
In my experience, I find that a good number of boys naturally still want to play football because they find the game fun and exciting. In many towns, football is still the most widely attended high school sporting event and most boys gain a sense of pride walking around school in their varsity jerseys on gameday.
Further, football provides an opportunity for boys to engage in physical activity, a key component in their development. According to an article in the Journal of Women’s Health, Issues and Care that investigated the differing nature between the physical activity requirements of males and females, they concluded that “Males are more physically active in utero, infanthood, childhood, adolescence, adulthood and through to old age.” The article goes on to explain that “males and females are predisposed to engage in different levels of intensity and type of physical activity.”
For decades, large numbers of boys fed this need for physical exercise by playing football. They often started in youth leagues and worked their way up the pecking order, hoping to become a varsity starter by their junior or senior year in high school. But, in the early 2000’s, as case studies regarding head trauma and concussions became more publicized, parents began questioning the benefit of their pre-teen and teen boys playing football.
In response, the football community has evolved the way the game is taught and played. New tackling techniques, changes in rules and increased penalties for non-essential contact have resulted in a safer game. A 2017 study by the South Carolina Center for Effectiveness Research in Orthopedics found that, among more than 2,500 high school football players, concussions were down 33 to 40 percent for a test group that adopted USA Football's Heads Up Football, a safer tackling technique.
A Reuters report detailed the 69 percent reduction in concussions from kickoff plays after a rule change in the NCAA’s Ivy League two years ago. Additionally, new technology has resulted in the development of safer equipment; most notably helmets.
According to the Chicago Tribune, concussions were down 13 percent in the NFL’s preseason this year, in part because the NFL “took the step of prohibiting players from wearing certain helmet models that performed poorly in concussion-related testing.”
The attention to head injuries in football has also highlighted the inherent risk for head injury that comes with playing other sports, such as hockey, lacrosse and soccer.
In fact, sometimes girls are at greater risk than boys. According to Healthline.com writer Cameron Scott’s 2015 article titled "Soccer Causes Concussions — Especially in Girls," researchers at Colorado University “found that for every 10,000 high school soccer games and practices, girls sustained 4.5 concussions while boy soccer players sustained just 2.8.”
The article noted that there is now a “concerted effort to reduce rough play” in soccer matches. It now seems most team sports are, correctly so, giving greater attention to athlete safety, and specifically to concussion prevention. Yet these sports do not seem to be losing players at the same rate as football.
So why are the number of participants still going down for football in most areas? Certainly, the good news regarding the increasing level of safety in youth and high school football programs will take time to permeate the general psyche. In my opinion, concussion awareness explains only part of the decline. The biggest obstacle to getting boys to play football is poor coaching. More specifically, poor coaching leads to a poor “football experience” for many players.
Coaches in many youth and high school programs haven’t updated their coaching methods in years, and many have not kept up with the industry's best practices regarding practice planning or choosing appropriate offensive or defensive systems.
Simply put, poor coaching a negative experience is viewed by pre-teen and teen boys as a waste of their time. I have seen plenty of good athletes quit football because it’s too big a time commitment, there’s too much inactivity during practice or they can’t comprehend what the coach is teaching.
These poor coaches commit one of two common mistakes. The first mistake is sticking to the, “I’ve done it this way forever” philosophy. These are coaches who may have had success in years past, but continue to teach the game the same way they always have, using outdated practice routines and offensive or defensive systems they're familiar with. The problem is that the game has changed, and so have the players’ expectations.
The second common mistake made is by the, “I see it on TV on Saturdays and Sundays” coach. These coaches see the success collegiate and professional teams are having and automatically think it'd be good to mirror the same approaches and schemes for their lower-level team. Is this wrong? Not if your program has plenty of support, enough athletes to competently fill each and every position on the field and coaches who can competently coach those players in the various positions.
It is wrong if you are that 0-6 team that lost 47-0 I mentioned earlier. After that game, I overheard some of the parents chatting as I left the bleachers.
“Well,” said one mom looking for something positive to say, “He is such a good guy," one mom said about the coach. I asked her why, and she said, “He really cares about the boys.” A dad added, “He used to coach in college back in the 70’s and really knows his stuff.” Perhaps, but it's obvious he's not having the same success.
What I saw during that game was nothing short of coaching malpractice. First, that team had zero chance of being successful in a passing-oriented and hard-to-execute offense. Mediocre to subpar athletes were expected to perform football assignments they simply could not execute. The offensive linemen had very wide splits, leaving plenty of room for blitzing linebackers to run through. In addition to having poor technique, the linemen had no idea how to communicate blocking assignments or how to make blocking adjustments to prevent the defense from getting through the line untouched. Their running backs and tight ends seemed not to know how, if or when to stay home and block, or when to cut a route short due to pressure on the quarterback.
Sometimes, two or three receivers ran to the same spot on the field. Most likely the coach didn’t intend to have three receivers covered by only one defensive back, but that's beside the point. What's important is he effectively communicate that to his receivers, and therefore they had no chance of success on the field.
Poor results on the field are the result of ineffective and poorly planned practices. As any football coach, player or parent know, the vast majority of football time is spent practicing. Therefore, poor practices are the primary area where football programs keep or lose players. I've watched youth and high school football practices where more than half the team stands around for long periods of time while the entire coaching staff focuses on a handful of players.
This is why kids don’t play football.
Please do not misunderstand my intentions. Respect is a two-way street, and many football coaches simply do not respect their players’ time. They may talk about their “football family” and may profess respect for the game, but do they really?
Players don’t think so, and they are voting with their feet. Forbes Magazine contributor Bob Cook notes that the number of football participants is down from its peak in 2009, and adds that players are “running a cost-benefit analysis and finding football isn’t worth their time.”
Again, please note I am not advocating for any one style of offense or defense. I am not suggesting football coaches not yell at players, and I am not in favor of anything but a merit system for offering playing time and assigning positions.
But I am advocating for more football coaches to be better prepared to conduct fast-paced, well organized and meaningful practices. Too many are not. I do expect coaches to understand the current pool of players may not be as talented, experienced or numerous as in years past. Too many do not.
Simply put, the football community has to make playing football worthwhile for today’s youth. Too often we are not. We are competing with other sports kids that want to play in addition to the variety of non-sporting activities that exist. Offering long, boring practices that mimic decades-old routines are a sure-fire way to lose players. Running complex systems without the proper coaching or player talent is a recipe for disaster.
The single best way to increase participation in youth and high school football is to rid ourselves of the many coaches who do not respect the game enough to stay informed. There are plenty of well-run and informative football clinics that offer coaching tips and information on every aspect of running a program. There are plenty of websites and online resources dedicated to sharing the latest safety data, practice plans and schemes. Most of this information is available online, 24/7 from anywhere in the country.
Every coach should offer a well-organized and meaningful experience for the players. If your local program continues to lose participants to other activities and has not had a successful season in recent memory, look no further than the coaching staff. As Pro Football Hall of Fame Coach Chuck Noll said, “In order to win the game, you first must not lose it.”
Jay Stolfi is a football author, coach and lecturer. The 54-year-old Connecticut resident has 13 years of experience coaching youth and high school football. He is the creator of the Double Gun Offense and has been a Nike Coach of the Year lecturer.