While youth football like any sport has risk, right now very few people are talking about the benefits kids get by playing. When looking at any decision we all look at the costs or risk and weigh them against the benefits gained. While we all have been inundated with information on the risks, let’s examine the benefits kids get by participating in something that is uniquely American as apple pie or the hamburger sandwich.
The benefits to participation in youth football are far and wide, some easy to quantify and some not so easy. They include: improved health and weight control, lower diabetes risk, learn value of teamwork, learn value of selflessness, learn value of delayed gratification, learn about overcoming obstacles, learn the value of preparation and hard work, learn the value of discipline, learn about controlling emotions, develop meaningful and lasting friendships, learn how to overcome fear and even pain, experiences true one on one and group competition, learns value of being part of something greater than ones self, learns the value of rules and boundaries, learns to be “coachable”, learns value of dependability and trust, learns value of commitment and follow through, learns how to win with graciousness, learns how to deal with losses and disappointment.There are also studies that even show kids involved in competitive team sports are less likely to get into trouble and perform better in the classroom. Everyone’s situation is different, but these are some of the benefits I gained as a player or have witnessed other kids gaining. I’ve coached youth football for over 20 years now. Youth football seems to help many kids mature in a very unique and powerful way.
Let’s look at some of these in a little more detail. According to the Center for Disease Control, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years. If you have functioning eyes, this shouldn’t shock anyone that has been to a local Walmart or Amusement park lately. We are in the middle of an epidemic of obesity in children that simply didn’t exist 30 years ago. The percentage of children aged 6–11 years in the United States who are obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 18% in 2010. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12–19 years who were obese increased from 5% to 18% over the same period.Children and adolescents who are obese are significantly more probable to be obese as adults and are therefore more at risk for adult health problems such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer, and osteoarthritis. The CDC states that there has been a 10-30 FOLD increase in children with type 2 diabetes in the last 15 years. 95% of those children are overweight, the leading risk factor.
What are the causes for this epidemic? For starters, we now have many activities today that require no physical effort, like video games and computers. You rarely see kids today without their electronics. Thirty years ago kids were outside playing games or sports, now they sit in their rooms alone playing mind numbing video or computer games. Inactivity and caloric intake are what determine weight gain. While diets haven’t changed much in the last 30 years, if anything they’ve gotten healthier, what has changed are activity levels. Calories burned is a function of body weight, age and how hard or fast paced a practice is. For High School kids playing in a 90 minute game, it varies even by position and weight, ranging from 1166 calories for a 180 lb Wide Out to 1728 calories for a 200 lb Running Back. For youth practices for example a 72 lb 10 year old practicing for 2 hours will burn from 250-390 calories. Please ask yourself this, what sports can bigger heavier kids play, have some success and not feel out of place? Baseball, soccer, gymnastics, swimming, basketball, wrestling? I’ve seen some of my overweight kids lose 15-20 lbs during a season, I know I always drop 10-12 lbs and I’m not even working as hard as them. Where exactly are those big husky or overweight kids going to land if they aren’t playing football?
Today everything seems to be about me, the me first, look at me, what’s in it for me trend has hit a threshold in todays kids. Competitive team sports like football emphasize the needs of the team over self. Selflessness, cooperation and teamwork are what most youth football coaches emphasize to bring their teams together, so they can function and play together efficiently and effectively as a group. In football all 11 players on the field are involved in every single play. Unlike other sports, in football if one of the 11 players are out of place or not doing their jobs well, it is often times a negative outcome for the entire team. Football players have to depend, trust and work together in order to function well as a team, those are all great skills for a child to take forward into his education life, work life and even home life.
These skills seem to also sharpen in developing peer to peer relationships. I’ve seen very different kids who came into camp as enemies end up developing respect for and even end up becoming friends with each other due to their experiences of playing and cooperating on the same youth football team. I’ve seen very shy and introverted young boys blossom as they develop confidence in themselves, bond with their teammates and become part of a growing living entity that is bigger than themselves, their “team.” Often times youth football seems to be a catalyst for growth for these kids.
Every year at our year end banquet I get to hear from tearful and thankful moms who were afraid their unathletic, introverted and even bullied sons wouldn’t fit it into our team, only to find their son had a newfound confidence in himself. When I go to the local High School football game I always get stopped by one of those minimum play player moms who had a son that aged out 5-10 years ago. The story is almost always the same, their kids were the biggest benefactors of the program and the experience had a very deep and lasting impact. You would be shocked at how deep and enduring many of the friendships boys develop simply by going through the same challenges and learning to depend on, trust in and triumph together during their youth football experiences. It’s kind of like a young mans fraternity if you will, a common bond that often times results in meaningful and enduring relationships between the boys.
While that sounds very Mayberry like, today’s world moves fast, fast, fast. With the advent of the internet, social media, other new technologies and services we can get about anything we want and get it quickly. We are in an I want it now, now, now and I want it fast, fast, fast society. While we may have instant access to many things, other things develop better if given time. Things like your education, career, body development, savings and relationships all require effort that doesn’t always get an immediate result. There simply aren’t shortcuts and drive though lanes to meet every child or adults needs. In youth football you have to put in the work over the course of an entire season or a number of seasons in order to get a positive result. If you choose not to put the work in or take shortcuts, in the end, the results aren’t going to be very good. Hmm, sounds like something kids will eventually have to develop some understanding about in order to be successful in real life. Understanding and buying into delayed gratification is one of the biggest benefits from playing this game.
Commitment also seems to be on the way out in todays society. Many have one toe in the water or want to have flexibility and be able to quit easily if something isn’t going their way. I like to call it the “video reset button” society. If something isn’t going well when a kid is playing a video game, he doesn’t finish the game out, he resets it and starts over. There is no commitment or accountability in that equation. The problem with that is, that situation doesn’t happen in real life, you don’t get a lot of do overs ALL THE TIME in your work and relationship lives. In youth football you are going to show up 2-3-4 times a week at x time and play 8-12 games over 12-15 weeks. That’s a commitment to yourself, your teammates and your coach. Hmm, showing up on time voluntarily to do something that is fun sometimes, hard sometimes and difficult sometimes for a goal larger than oneself. Wow, that doesn’t sound like something that could be bad for anyone to take forward.
Overcoming adversity is something that seems to be on the way out in todays world as well. Now we have “helicopter parents” who in their misguided love for their children, try and shield them from any and all problems. I’ve read articles about college professors and even professional white collar employers who regularly field phone calls from intervening parents. So when is little Johnny on his own, is it 30, 40, maybe 50? Kids have to learn to overcome fears and obstacles on their own somewhat to mature into functioning high schoolers and adults. Sure most kids have a little fear the first time they strap on that helmet or when they have to go into a drill with Beasty Billy, or when their team plays the Monsters of the Midway. But when he comes out the other side relatively unscathed, the young man finds something out about himself. Physical competitive contact sports just brings that out in kids. They find out they are more resilient and mentally tough than they ever thought they could be. They can only learn that by actually experiencing it.
There are more so many more benefits on the mental part of the game, youth football is a game of emotions and discipline. Games and even practices can be an emotional roller coaster. Players learn to control their emotions so they can play under control and within the rules of the game. They learn that life isn’t alwasys fair or perfect. Sure a referee is going to make a bad call or a coach isn’t going to call the right play of play the best player. They learn to cope and deal with it, because it happens every game.
They also learn discipline. Every play on offense and defense requires all 11 players to do a specific job in a specific way, integrated in a specific way to meet the teams goals. In practice players must run drills and learn techniques in an orderly and specific fashion. They must listen to coaches and respond in a timely and specific fashion. There are rules and boundaries that simply aren’t crossed either because something is against the rules of the game or they violate the team or coaches boundaries. In life we all deal with boundaries and rules and much of what we do requires both emotional control and discipline. Youth football does an excellent job of teaching kids those skills.
Many kids today want to be able to do whatever they want whenever they want to their own way. While that may work for some areas of their lives, it won’t work for all. Youth football when done right, teaches kids to be coachable. Being coachable means the player values the expertise and follows the directives of his coach on the field. Instead of doing something the way a player thinks it should be done, he defers to the expertise of someone who knows more about it than he does. At another level it helps players accept constructive criticism, cooperate with superiors and even deal with less than constructive criticism. Won’t kids need those type of skills when they get older or are they going to know everything about every task they ever have to perform? Maybe not, maybe they will be the first person in history to never get any criticism from anyone, I guess it’s possible.
Competition is something that we all deal with every day. We compete in the classroom, we compete in the workplace, we even compete for the affection of others. Employers including Bill Gates at Microsoft LOVE hiring people who played competitive team sports. Competition is a fact of life and in the end it usually makes us all better at whatever skills are needed in order to win the competition. Competing well requires commitment, hard work, follow through, persistence, being coachable and in youth football it also means you are going to be selfless and a team player. Competition means rewards like playing time and even wins and losses are a function of merit, that is what our children are going to face in the real world. But in all competitions there is both a winner and a loser. There are life lessons in both, being classy and gracious when the winner. When on the other side of that competition, they learn about being a good sport, giving credit where credit is due, taking responsibility for losses, coping with disappointment and learning from mistakes.
Another area where youth football players benefit from the game is in the classroom. Many studies have shown that athletes have higher grade point averages and graduation rates than non-athletes both at the High School and Collegiate level (Eitzen&Saga). Many High Schools and even youth programs like Pop Warner have minimum grade and attendance requirements that must be met in order to participate. Those requirements provide incentives for athletes to do well in the classroom.
Activities like youth football also seem to have a deterrent effect on juvenile delinquency. Between 3-6 pm are the peak hours of juvenile crimes. Studies show that teens left unsupervised for 3 or more days per week are twice as likely to hang out with gang members and three times more likely to be involved in crime. There is a well-accepted “social bonds” theory that says that juvenile delinquent acts require a motivated offender, a suitable target, an opportunity and the absence of a capable guardian. Youth football practice usually breaks up these 3 hour and 3 day windows, creates less opportunity and puts the player in the care of a suitable and caring supervising adult. While youth football isn’t the whole answer to juvenile crime, it certainly can be part of it and in some cases a very important part of the answer when it comes to youth development
While youth football can help improve the lives of many of our players, it’s not going to solve every social ill and prepare our children for every situation they will face. But the very unique nature of this competitive contact sport seems to do a very nice job of helping to prepare many kids for many of the obstacles they are going to face as they grow up. I’ve coached baseball, basketball, soccer, boxing and weight training and my own kids have participated in 6-7 other sports and none of them compare to football in regard to developing life skills. I call youth football “miracle grow for kids”, for many it helps them blossom into healthy and well grounded people, able to bear good fruit when their time comes. While the game isn’t perfect and like any sport there is inherent risk in playing, the game certainly isn’t worthy of all the hatred thrown its way over the past few months.
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