Fall is here and with it comes the familiar sights and sounds of football teams starting their seasons. Fall football is always a highly anticipated event, but in recent years, I’ve noticed some changes in the sport.
The most obvious change to me, is to see an almost complete disappearance of flag football. Seems nearly all youth leagues are starting to play tackle at earlier age divisions. In my local area, the kids start tackle football in fifth grade. Other communities are starting tackle football even earlier than that.
Realizing kids are starting tackle several years earlier than I did leads me to ask, at what age should kids start playing tackle football?
This article is a summary of my observations resulting in my opinion that that many kids are starting tackle football too early.
Rushed Maturation of Youth Sports
Across the board, youth sports seem to be maturing at a faster rate these days. You may be asking yourself what that actually means. Simply put, society expects youth sports to be more like high school, college, or even professional sports.
The most obvious way this shows up is in the game rules we now use at younger ages. But it also is evident in the attitudes of the coaches and fans.
Lack of Customized Rules
I’m a big proponent of customizing the rules of the game to match the development age of the kids. Rushing kids to play with the same rules and dynamics as older athletes an hinder their development and enjoyment of the sport.
Unfortunately, this is an all too common scene. Consider youth basketball teams where second and third graders are struggling to shoot on a ten foot hoop. Given the kids’ height, that’d be equivalent to an adult having to play with a twenty foot hoop. Seem daunting? Now imagine you also have almost no experience with the game on a hoop of any height. That can lead to frustration for the players.
Similarly, I’ve seen plenty of baseball teams with first and second grade pitchers. When kids are barely able to throw a ball with anything resembling proper mechanics, we place them on the mound and ask them to throw strikes. Not only do they get frustrated trying to do so, but the game becomes long and dull for the players and the parents. This is why coach-pitch baseball was invented, but many teams now choose to forego that option.
Customized Football Rules
From a football standpoint, it’s common to see tiny kids putting on football pads as big as themselves to play tackle. When the kids can’t raise their arms because their pads are in the way or their helmet wiggles loosely on their head, it should be a sign of something wrong.
When I played football growing up, tackle did not start until eighth grade. Prior to that we played flag football. We got to play the game and had fun learning with the safety of using flags. This gave us the opportunity to learn how to run, pass, and play defense without also worrying about tackling.
For those that haven’t played before, football can actually be a pretty confusing sport. There’s a lot going on at any given time and multiple different roles on the field. Adding tackling adds a whole other dimension to the game. Instead of just catching a pass, you think about catching the pass and getting hit.
Shouldn’t we be customizing the rules of the game to give these young players a better football experience?
Attitudes of Coaches and Fans
Another aspect to consider with tackle football is the culture of the game. I grew up playing football and know all about it. Old school football culture is one of hitting and hitting hard. Not to mention being able to take several of those hard hits. The ultimate in manliness.
Today, this old school culture seems tone-deaf as the sport tries to shake some of that cultural stigma around injuries and concussions. However, the culture in youth football does not seem to have progressed at the same rate. I still see youth coaches talking about having to toughen kids up.
The most obvious way they try to toughen up their kids is emphasis on hitting. In practice, kids go head-to-head in tackling drills. During games, the coaches point out and verbally reward kids who deliver crushing blows.
Parents and other spectators have just as much a roll in defining the culture of the game. While TV announcers no longer treat brutal hits as positive events, youth spectators still erupt with cheers when a ten-year-old gets leveled. Sometimes people in the crowd even laugh when a smaller kid gets knocked down.
All this culture does is reinforce for the players that this game is not for kids. These kids better grow up (and toughen up) quickly if they want to be successful.
But the fact of the matter is that youth sports were designed for youth. Our kids already have precious few years to be kids so why are we so insistent upon accelerating them into adulthood?
Of course, the most obvious reason to delay the start of tackle football is the potential for injury. Do kids get hurt playing flag football? They will absolutely still get bumps and bruises. That happens in any sport.
Tackle football, however, adds a component of intentional contact to the game. That automatically opens the players up for more likelihood of injury. Kids are very resilient, but at early ages, they are still developing. They don’t always have the musculature developed to protect them against a hit.
Therein lies another problem. Kids in these early age groups develop at astonishingly different rates. Too often you see a kid on the field twice the size as the others. These size mismatches are problematic as getting tackled by someone twice your size is neither fair nor safe.
Concussions and Head Trauma
No discussion of tackle football injuries would not be complete these days without talking about head trauma. It is an absolute fact that full-contact, tackle football increases the players’ risk of concussions and other head injuries. By now, it should be universally recognized that concussions are major injuries that need to be taken seriously.
You may hear people make the argument that youth football players don’t hit hard enough for this to be a problem. However, people often forget that it’s not just concussions that can have lasting effects on the brain.
The research into Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) shows that small, non-concussive impacts to the head can be hazardous over time. Even with a helmet, small hits and contact with the ground can lead to CTE later. And “later” doesn’t necessarily mean after a lifetime of playing football as CTE has been diagnosed in high school aged players.
I should note that a couple factors significantly increase the likelihood of developing CTE. Those factors are age of first exposure and length of exposure time to head impacts. By starting tackle football at earlier ages we have simultaneously lowered the age of first exposure and extended the length of exposure time. To me, this is poor injury risk management.
Conclusion – Wait to Start Tackle
For me, the answer is clear. I absolutely think many communities start tackle football too early. In my opinion, kids should not start tackle football until eighth grade.
The benefits of waiting until eighth grade include:
- Developed basics of the game (running, passing, defense)
- Musculature better able to protect players during tackles
- More even distribution of player size
- Better-fitting protective equipment
- Reduces the grow-up quickly mentality
- Reduction in injury risk through starting later and shortened exposure time
For me, the reduced injury risk profile should be enough for any league, coach, or parent to push for delaying the start of tackle football. But the other benefits reinforce my position.
Hopefully, my observations and opinions will help you in making decisions for your own kids on what age they should start tackle football.
If you have other thoughts on the subject, please leave a comment.