Q:How do I know if my son is ready for tackle football?
A: Your son is ready for tackle when he asks to play. Plain and simple, if he wants to be out there then he is ready. And for me, the reason for him wanting to be out there doesn’t really matter. If he wants to be with his friends, or he thinks the body armor is cool or he likes playing Madden on the Xbox and wants to see what it is really like, then he is ready. Now, that being said, football is a tremendous commitment for the entire family, as well as the player. When he is placed (or drafted, or however his team is formed) onto a team, he has now become a part of something bigger than himself, and that commitment has to be honored. Sit down with your son and have a frank conversation, explain to him that you are willing to let him play, but if he signs up, he is in it for the season. Explain to him (without trying to scare him or talk him out of it) that football is hard, it takes a lot of work and he will sweat and he will cry (they all cry, and that’s okay), and if he is ready to work hard for something bigger than himself, then he can play. And yes, you can have that conversation with a 7 year old.
Now the season has started, and he has decided that he really didn’t know what he signed up for, and he wants to quit. Remind him of his commitment and the conversation you had prior to signing him up. Let him know that his teammates are counting on him, and just because something is hard doesn’t mean he should give up. Talk with him and find out why he no longer wants to play, then encourage him to push through it. Talk to his coach about his fears and objections to honoring his commitment and ask coach to speak with him, chances are, coach will know exactly what to say to him to get him past it and having fun.
Q: How do I know if my son has a good coach or not?
A: Now this is a tough question to answer. “Good” is a subjective thing. If coach wins a lot of games, does that make him good? Can coach diagram a defensive scheme on a napkin and show you how he shuts down the off tackle play? If coach played college football at UT, does that make him a good coach?
For me, a good coach is a teacher, no different than your son’s math teacher. Okay, maybe a little different, his class room is the field and he has a whistle. But just like learning math, boys will learn the game of football differently as well. A good coach will figure out how each player learns in order to be an effective teacher. A good coach is caring; he will know when your boy needs a hug or an encouraging word to keep him going. A good coach knows that there are more important things than the scoreboard, and uses football as a tool to teach the boys about becoming good young men. Character counts. A good coach has reasonable expectations of his players, not asking them to do things of which they are not capable. A good coach coaches his entire roster from top to bottom. You will know if your son has a good coach when your son is excited about going to practice.
Q: What can I do to help prevent injuries to my son?
A: Football is a contact sport; the players wear body armor for a reason. At some point during the season, he will get a bump or a bruise or lose some skin off of his shin (or elbow). Comes with the game. In my experience, real injuries are rare in youth football. But as I said, it is a contact sport and injuries do happen. As a parent, you can help minimize this. Being in general good health will help. Make sure your son is eating a healthy diet and getting plenty of rest and hydrating. If he is not performing at 100% because he is tired or hungry or not properly hydrated, he is more apt to get hurt or injured.
His equipment will help. Make sure your son’s equipment is fitted properly, this isn’t like his school clothes, don’t buy the next size up so it will fit him for a few seasons. It needs to fit him snugly and cover the parts of the body it is meant to protect. Knee pads that are covering his shins won’t help protect his knees. His equipment and uniform are not fashion statements, a snug jersey may have him looking like a stuffed sausage, but it helps keep his shoulder pads where they belong.
Reinforce the techniques that his coach is teaching him regarding safety. His helmet is not a weapon, keep your eyes up, hit what you see, etc.
Q: What should I do if I think my son should be playing a different position than the coach has him at?
A: As a parent, you are worried about your own son. Coaches get that. You want to make sure your son is safe and having a good time, we get that too. A good coach will be concerned about the entire team, not only what is best for each individual boy, but the team as a whole. I spend hours trying to figure out how to maximize each player’s contribution to the team and how they fit together. When my son first started playing youth football, I really had no idea what position he would play. I would be lying if I said I didn’t care if he was a running back or a tackle, I secretly hoped that he would be the next Steve Young (my son is a lefty). His first day of practice, coach lined him up at tackle and started showing him what he would be doing. I also looked at the other players on the team, and noticed that my son was a lot bigger than the other boys. I figured on this team, that was probably where he fit best. So, I decided if he was going to play tackle, he would be the best tackle he could be. I reinforced the things that coach was teaching him and encouraged him to do his best.
My son is now a Junior in High School. His body has changed dramatically since he first started playing football when he was 7. As his body changed over the years, and his athleticism changed over the years, he has played many different positions in football. He has played on the offensive and defensive line. He has played running back and linebacker. He has played tight end and center. He has been a football player, and has played wherever coach has asked him to play, and he has worked hard to stay on the field. Before every season starts, he asks me, “What position do you think I should go out for?”, My answer is always “Be a football player, and let coach figure out where the team needs you the most.”
So to answer the question, if you think your son should be playing a different position than the coach has him playing, keep that thought to yourself, and encourage him to do his best. Encourage him to be a football player and make himself valuable to the team. Just because he is playing in a position this season, it doesn’t mean he will be playing that position forever.
Q: Will it put my son at a disadvantage if he doesn’t start playing football until middle school?
A: Another very subjective and tough question to answer. It depends. I have spoken to lots of different people on this topic, and the answers vary. People who don’t think children should play football until middle school will use examples like Jim Jeffcoat’s son. He was not allowed to play football until he was in middle school, and look at him, he went on to get a full ride to UT. That is a little disingenuous, the younger Jeffcoat had genetics on his side. His dad was a professional football player and a very large and athletic man, as I understand he passed on to his son.
Talking to the rule, and not the exception, there are definitely some advantages to starting football as a youth player. Hopefully, they will have been taught the fundamentals of the game and have some sort of concept of what is going on. The late starter will have some catching up to do. Does that mean they will never step foot on the field? Absolutely not. If your son has a good work ethic he will get meaningful repetitions in middle school, both at practice and the games. The schools around North Texas generally have A and B squads and at some of the larger schools even C and D squads. The coaches will break the squads up by experience and general ability. So if your son has no experience, he will likely start out assigned to one of the lower squads and have the ability through hard work to move up.
I would refer you to question number 1, if your son wants to play before middle school, and you feel football will fit your family’s situation, then let him play. That said, if for whatever reason he does not play football before middle school, have him participate in some sort of athletic endeavor, and no, Madden on the Xbox is not an athletic endeavor. Here in North Texas, we have loads of opportunities for our children to get up off the couch.
Chris McCoy is a volunteer youth football coach in Frisco, Texas. He has been volunteering his time with youth since 2006 with the Boy Scouts of America and various youth leagues in North Texas. He was also the recipient of the Positive Coaching Alliance’s Double Goal Coach Award in 2012.