The State Of Youth Football in Your State
Are you worried about the state of youth football? Many are and rightfully so, but amidst all the hysteria, where are we really at and how do we improve things?
While I’ve been to over 30 states doing youth football coaching clinics and deal with coaches from all 50 states, THIS article is going to focus on youth football in my backyard. That is Nebraska, the one-time bastion of all that was good about football, that has now fallen on hard times.
I live about 20-25 minutes from Lincoln, Nebraska a city of about 235,000, a city that was once “Mecca” for football purists. My program only has about 130 kids, but from a percentage standpoint, our reach is impressive. We compete with another program for kids and together with them have a participation rate in the 30-40% range. I also ran a 400 kid program in Omaha, which has a metro population of over 900,000. In Omaha I often times had waiting lists of over 100 players.
But in 2017 all is not bliss in Nebraska when it comes to football numbers. The latest numbers say there was a 2% decline in the number of boys playing high school football this year. Of the 279 High Schools playing football in Nebraska 8 have dropped football in the last 5 years. The largest number of losses in numbers were with Class A teams which are teams that are primarily located in Omaha and Lincoln.
So why are these numbers dropping and how do we solve for it? We may be up against some macro issues that may be difficult to address, but there may be other things we can take action on.
At the youth level here the statewide numbers are down about 30% over the last 5 years and 10% in just the last year. My own programs numbers have been stable and growing, but we seem to be the exception, not the rule. Interestingly enough, flag football numbers have skyrocketed. Just 10 years ago, flag football was only for kids aged 5-8 and for adults. Now there are literally hundreds of kids up to age 12 playing flag instead of tackle football. Never mind the fact that a University of Iowa study clearly showed flag football is more dangerous than tackle.
In years past we rarely got new players past age 9. Now we regularly see kids as old as 12 playing for the very first time. Now that’s great for kids who are big mature athletes. But for the average Joe’s, learning football when everyone is running 6-8 second forties and 90% of the kids are under 100 lbs, is reasonably safe. Logically and statistically it is safer than waiting until you are in High School, where there will be sub 5 second 40 guys who weigh over 200 lbs and have already been playing for 4-5 years.
Competitive team sport numbers are down across most sports. Here boys basketball at the High School level numbers are down more than 15% over the last 15 years. We see smaller numbers for sports like wrestling too. It isn’t just football that is losing numbers. I read lots of material about kids turning into coach potatoes. They have video games, cell phones, social media and the internet, which has taken us from having 3 TV channels of entertainment to thousands of virtual channels. We need to stress the social value of football. Kids can develop positive meaningful and lasting relationships on youth football teams.
The kids who do participate in team sports seem to be specializing in one sport earlier and earlier. We lost a kid to fall baseball recently. We even had kids miss a late July voluntary camp because of a basketball tournament. So much for basketball being a November- March sport. Instead of competing year round with other sports, we need to make sure our seasons don’t overlap other sports if at all possible. Develop relationships with other team sport programs that do not go year round and encourage your kids to participate.
Then there is the elephant in the room- concussions. There are legitimate concerns that have been and are being addressed by the football establishment. USA Football and others have been trying to educating coaches, parents and players about safer approaches to practice and play the game. There are risks playing any game, but you need to know your numbers and share what your org is doing to address this issue with parents.
Some other ideas on how to address these issues:
Have conversations. We do an open house and bring a buddy to practice day event for prospective players and their parents. They see how we practice- which since 2002 was with our helmets off for nearly half of every practice. When parents see that practice isn’t 100% to the ground contact for most of the time spent, they are very surprised. We then do a Q&A and everyone eats pizza.
During that Q&A share the training and certifications your coaches must attain before they can coach. Know and quote your injury numbers. Out of 130 kids we had one broken bone and 2 concussions this year. We have had many seasons where the numbers were even lower. You need to share what your numbers are. We invite them all to our game that weekend, where we pull out all the stops, every player has a poster on the fence, all of our trophies and banners are displayed, free food and game jerseys for the new kids who sign up.
Make your program more than football. For many of these kids they won’t be playing past the youth level. Parents have their kids enrolled to help them develop as people and for the social aspect. There isn’t anything wrong with that. We do weekly Character Themes and awards as well as assigning partners. The partners are assigned a question of the day that they must know how their partner answered and then we do some trust and accountability things as well.
Game day experience. It’s 2017, we are competing with lots of other activities for the attention level of the kids. I’ve always been a fan of the Penn State or no frills Nebraska type jerseys and no frills entrances. Today we have what most would consider the most modern and interesting jerseys in our league and our oldest kids get their name on the back. Announcers, music, entrances, banners, trophies, balloons, blow up slides- whatever you need to do to make your game atmosphere big time, do it.
Win- winning does help when it comes to recruiting and retaining players. In Nebraska the Class A teams for the most part have open enrollment. What that means is many of the city schools that are bad in football, stay bad because the better players enroll at the schools that are winning. Kids that were thinking about going out for football, don’t bother, they don’t want to be on a team that gets crushed every week. The loss in numbers have primarily been at those noncompetitive schools. Locally, the year after our High School made it into the state finals, there was a big uptick in roster size. There is a relationship between being competitive and numbers. Don’t ignore this, being competitive matters.
Let the kids play. Playing time is important. No one is suggesting that anyone play all the kids equally in spite of inputs. But have a minimum standard that every player must hit in order to qualify to play x number of plays. Have a scheme that can accommodate weaker players. Our league has no minimum play requirements. However our teams have an internal number which we lowered from 16 to 12 to 8. We had fewer reups this year percentage wise than in years past, so we are going to raise that number back up this season. Forcing your coaches to play everyone, means all your players will get coached up.
Have conversations- know what youth football has to offer. Recently I’ve been asked to speak at several Rotary functions, where key influencers from around the community got to hear about how playing a competitive team sport that is uniquely American, uniquely masculine and uniquely physical can help a young man mature in a powerful way while they are having fun and developing strong social relationships.
Do your best to recruit, retain and train the best coaches you can. That is the difference between programs that consistently win and those that don’t. Now is the time to scour your area for those guys, during basketball and wrestling season.
While every situation is different, most of us see many of these same issues in their own backyards. No one is immune to these problems. But don’t feel everything is beyond your control. Take charge of some key tasks and get busy.