In the near future, I'll be adding additional email questions/answers from my old website to this archive section.

A Unique "Player-Friendly" Youth Football Program

With the football season winding down, this may be a good time to talk about a unique, but not new, youth football program that has caught the fancy of both parents and kids in  northeast Florida.

As a former coach in two of the most competitive youth football programs available to youngsters - Pop Warner Football and Long Island Midget Football - I've had the opportunity to see, up close and personal, both the positive side and the negative side of such programs. However, it is not my intention in this writing to recount in specific detail either of those experiences.

Instead my purpose is to describe for parents and players a "player-friendly" football program that I started a few years ago that focuses on fun, participation and skill development for all participants.

It may be difficult to believe such a program actually exists, given that the common perception of the game, its fans and especially its coaches is quite the opposite - but such a program really does exist here in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL.

The program, dubbed Junior Development Football, was patterned in principle after the NFL's Junior Player Development Programand while the implementation of this program is uniquely different, the guiding principles of the two programs are identical:

Make It Fun
Limit Standing Around
Everyone Plays
Teach Every Position to Every Participant
Emphasize the Fundamentals
Establish a Progression of Skill Development for Every Participant
Yell Encouragement, Whisper Constructive Criticism

Many experts agree that these should be the objectives of any quality, wholesome youth sports program but, unfortunately, insensitive and overly competitive adults often undermine these principles.

Junior Development Football addresses the common "problem" situations that are so prevalent in youth football these days including insufficient playing time for all players, an overemphasis on winning, insensitive and abusive coaches and competitive mismatches.

The mission of the Ponte Vedra Junior Development Youth Football Program is to provide a safe and player-friendly environment, in which children can learn, play and enjoy the game of tackle football. Essential to the mission are:

* Balanced competition
* Full and equal participation
* A unique coaching approach

The goal of this innovative program is that every single participant has a positive and enjoyable playing experience regardless of skill or ability - an experience in which each player has the opportunity to develop new skills, gain confidence, and learn life - lessons regarding the importance of teamwork, responsibility, sportsmanship and discipline. Achieving this goal can encourage continued participation in the sport.

As is common in many youth programs, participating players in this program are grouped according to age and weight but an additional factor - ability - is also a consideration in placing a player in a division. Divisions are established for comparable size, age and general skill level participants and each division consists of approximately 28-30 players each. 

The ideal breakdown would be to have a division for each age group, but that is not always possible. Depending on the number and ages of players registered, a typical program might be constructed in the following manner: 

Division 1 for the youngest and smallest players, generally 6, 7 old and weighing an average of approximately 65 pounds*

Division 2 for players approximately 8 and 9 years old and weighing an average of approximately 80 pounds*

Division 3 for players 10 and 11 years old and weighing an average of approximately 100 pounds.*

Division 4 for players 12 and 13 years old with no limit on weight. (the average weight might be approximately 125 pounds.)

*Unlike most competitive youth football programs, these age/weight limits are flexible.Younger, heavier players are not required to play in an older division. The reason for this is that age and maturity are far more compelling parameters than weight in youth football. Young but heavier players are typically less aggressive and slower than more mature, older and lighter players, and are less likely to injure another player. Forcing a young, heavy child to play in an older age group with players of comparable weight, puts the younger player in a mismatched  situation and will likely turn him off football forever..

Coaches are assigned to each division and coach all the players in that division. Players compete only against players in the same division in practices and games.

In preparing for the season, basic formations, common drills and fundamental techniques are taught in the four divisions. Position stations are used to provide instruction for all players in each of the major positions and players are encouraged to play each position during practice and in games.

During practice and during games, player match-ups are made considering size and skill level to avoid mismatches. 

When players are prepared sufficiently to play a game - usually after the first month of practice - two teams are formed from the 30 players in a division - 15 players per team. Players are assigned to these two teams by the lead coach to ensure balanced competition. A game is then played according to conventional youth football rules with some minor accommodation to ensure safety (eg. no kickoff returns and no punt returns).

During the game, an offensive coach is on the field and coaches the offensive units for both teams. Similarly, a defensive coach is assigned to coach both defensive units. In this manner the coaches have no stake in which team wins and are able to focus on having each player play to the best of his ability. A sideline coach is assigned to rotate players in and out of the game ensuring total participation by all. The offensive and defensive coaches do not compete with one another but work together to ensure competitive in-game match-ups are maintained.

Games consist of two 25-minute "halfs" using a running clock. There is no 25-second play clock. If the outcome of the game is not in doubt (one team is ahead by more than one touchdown) as the 50 minute mark approaches the game ends when 50 minutes has expired. If, however, the game is in doubt (less than a touchdown separating the teams) after 50 minutes, each team is given an opportunity to complete a possession. This is done to ensure that the outcome of the game is determined by the players on the field, not by a circumstance of clock management/manipulation. Since we stress balanced competition, games can and sometimes do end in a tie. 

Once the game is over, no record of the outcome is kept because new teams will be formed from the 30 players the following week. The season consists of ten games played each Saturday with new teams made up each week. To accommodate this, players receive two contrasting jerseys at the start of the season. Players wear the appropriate jersey depending on team assignment.
Statistics such as yards gained and tackles made by each player as well as game highlights are kept and included in a weekly newsletter sent to players and parents.

Because "game day" team rosters are small (approximately 15 players on each competing team) playing time for each player is extensive. The measure of success of the program is player enjoyment and player development, not won-loss record or championships.

Here are what a few of the parents have to say about the Junior Development League Football program:

Last year our son Jacob (age 7) played his first year of football in the Junior Development Program. Not only did he learn the fundamentals of the game, Jacob learned the importance of teamwork, sportsmanship and discipline. Most importantly, he had a lot of fun. I would highly recommend the Junior Development Program to any parent who wants to introduce the game of football to their child in the right way.
Mark Brunell
Jacksonville Jaguars

Ryan plays on the recreational (Junior Development) team because of the philosophy held by Coach Jerry and the coaches he passes it down to. Competition isn't what drives this. A passion for football and a love for children is demonstrated at each practice and every game. Yes, Ryan learned how to play football last year. By the end of the season, he was a tackling machine. He had played almost every position and knows how to play them the right way. He received a great foundation for the rest of his football career. But that was just the beginning. Ryan learned that he was a valuable part of a team. He learned how to dig down and reach his greatest potential. He learned teamwork, perseverance, fair play, and the importance of a great attitude. Plus he had a blast! It was an incredible experience for our family. Thank you for making this possible for our kids!
Tom & Kim Freeman

Last fall I enrolled my son (age 9) in Ponte Vedra's Junior Developmental Football, after being told that he was over the weight requirement for Pop Warner. Initially, he and I were skeptical of the program and our expectations were low. I can not tell you how wrong we were.
By the end of the season, he had played every position, had knowledge of the importance in being a team player and had developed a confidence and sense of pride in his abilities to play a team sport that I have never seen in him before. I was thoroughly satisfied with the entire experience. 
The coaches' philosophy and expertise in managing the children with the game is by far superior to any baseball or soccer experience we have had. And without it, my son would have had no tackle football experience at all.
We are eager to enroll in another season and are in hopes that this program will continue for many more seasons.

Susan Taylor

The Junior Development football program is an ideal place for my boys (twins age 7) to learn how to play football. They get the opportunity to play offense, defense and even the skill positions which gives them a better understanding of the game - and how important each position is to the team as a whole. As far as competition is concerned, come game day, these kids want to win as much as the next kid. It is refreshing to see the coaches emphasizing the importance of each child playing to the best of their ability and not focusing on the end result of winning and losing. In fact, the coaches stress equal playing time for all children - playing both offense and defense each game.
I think Ryan summed it up best when he asked if we knew why he loved playing football? His answer "Because the coaches were so nice and make playing fun!"

Jim and Sandi Applegate

Nick (age 13) was never a good fit in the standard sports programs, although he always was a willing participant. Being bigger, slower and not as coordinated in early adolescence has its considerable drawbacks.
We were encouraged to find out about your program in 2001. Through your organization, every effort was made to provide Nick an encouraging, challenging environment in order to move forward in his interest to learn the fundamentals of football. A sport, I may add, I swore I would never allow him to get involved with. Not that I don't like the game, but it takes on a whole new meaning when it's your kid getting hit!
Parental concerns were laid to rest when the benefits of this instructional, team environment were realized. You and your volunteers have created a fun, yet safe environment for kids to thrive. The positive contribution that this organization makes in the lives of these kids is nearly immeasurable. They realize a potential that they at times, surprise even themselves.

Sue Adomaitis

A Question About Playing Time

We live in Port Orange Florida, and my 10 year old son plays baseball here. James is a very good player, but is having trouble staying in the lineup as much as he'd like. His coach has a son on the team. The team also has 3 assistant coaches who all have sons on the team as well. I can say, without bias, that my son is better than all of them. The coaches son plays second base and doesn't do that very well, but when he isn't at second, he's pitching. He walks the ballpark every time he pitches and their record when he starts is 0-3. When we started on this team, we told the coach that James has pitching experience (he throws pretty hard for his age) and is a shortstop. James has not been asked to pitch once, and has been stuck in the outfield when he plays at all. The kicker about this is, the coach is constantly telling me what a talented player James is! The reason I brought up the assistant coaches is, their sons have not missed an inning all season. We have 12 kids on the team so the coach rotates (unfairly) which kid will sit. The coach's son, nor the assistant coach's sons have ever missed an inning even though James is more talented. How can I approach this with my son's coach without being considered one of 'those' parents?

Answer:  Nepotism in kids sports is all too common. Not many coaches are able to deal fairly with all the players when the coach has a child on the team. With four coaches the problem is further compounded.

I believe recreational kids sports should be about full participation and should have rules requiring something approaching equal playing time for all participants. There are far too many "competitive" teams and selfish coaches that play only the better players (or in your son's case only the coach's sons) for the entire game.

You ask how to approach the coach without being considered one of "those" parents? My answer is be one of "those" parents and let the coach know what is bothering you and how you feel about your son's playing time. Coaches need feedback although many don't like it. Therefore it is important that you deal with the problem diplomatically in a well meaning manner. Don't approach the coach at the game. Make an appointment to meet with him away from the field without kids or other coaches around. Explain the problems his actions have created for you and your son. Suggest a different way of rotating players into the game and volunteer your help in making and implementing a rotation scheme that gives each player a some time on the bench and in the game. Try to avoid being combative and demanding but be firm that the current situation is not appropriate for many of the players involved. By the way, does your league have any minimum play time requirements? If so is the coach satisfying that requirement? If not you have additional ammunition to enforce a change in approach.

Yours is a strange case because most coaches that had a player as good as you say your son is would be playing that child the entire game - the "play the best and bench the rest" mentality of so many coaches. That would also be a problem as far as I'm concerned although it might not be for you. It sounds like the coaches are not very good at judging talent or have blinders on for some reason concerning your son. Ask the coach to give your son a chance at one of the skill positions to demonstrate what he can do. Let the coach know that you are confident the boy will prove his worth to the team and justify more playing time at the skill positions.

From an anonymous parent about high school football:

My athlete experienced a very troubling coaching philosophy I call the whipping boy approach. He was put out on a limb alone purposely by the coach to keep the others players in line. He was alienated by the coach due to jealousy and a vindictive attitude toward the high school program because the local staff did not want him around coaching at the high school level. Having said this, he is a winning coach and I think the administration has kept him around because of his winning success. We have left the school that has this coach and attend a private school that has made our athletic experience fun again. 

Please comment on the whipping boy philosophy. 

Answer: Unfortunately, the things you describe happen all too frequently in youth sports these days. Personally I am upset and offended by this approach and by the individuals who use such tactics. As you may have guessed, I am committed to eliminating this stigma from youth sports and am campaigning vigorously to eliminate this despicable element.

I believe the bulk of these problems are macho adults with over-inflated egos trying to achieve a transference of glory through manipulation of their own or other children. Much of this behavior is a result of the copy-cat
mentality of coaches trying to mimic the professional or "high-revenue" sports coach they see on television.

The whipping boy approach is one of the elements that is used to achieve the bad coach's objectives. Coaches who use tactics like the ones you describe often justify their actions as a means of instilling discipline and building character. I completely reject that argument as "hog-wash." Fear is a common tactic used by so many people in authority, not just youth coaches. It is too often a "way of life" in the business world and in the sports world.

Certainly discipline is essential to play any sport. We should be  teaching children that there are rules in sports, as there are in life, and there are consequences if rules are not followed. However, arbitrary and capricious actions by coaches in application of rules, consequences and expectations undermine the learning process and confuse the children.

Youth sports provide a wonderful opportunity to teach positive and valuable life lessons to youngsters eager to learn them. Coaches who use fear tactics are not only sending the wrong message to the kids, they are helping to preserve the "control-by-fear" style of management as an acceptable way of life. There is no place in youth sports for this style of coaching.

The most encouraging thing in your e-mail was that after transferring, your athlete had a positive experience. That goes to show that there are good coaches out there. We just need more of them. 

A Question from a Mom in Texas

Are you aware of any studies comparing player rotation (equal playing time) with winning? My 8 year old son is in a machine pitch league and the manager does not rotate well - he rotates just enough to say he rotated. We are near the bottom of the standings in our league. Yet, it seems to me that the winning teams ARE rotating AND winning. Just curious.

Answer: You have asked a very pertinent question.

I am not aware of any formal studies concerning the relationship of playing time to winning. I do, however, have my own thoughts on the matter, based on my experiences in youth sports for more than 50 years and  I'm happy to share these thoughts with you.

Too many youth coaches today focus their attention only on the team's better players and don't provide adequate attention and instruction for the others. A common expression for this type of coaching is to "play (or coach) the best and bench the rest."

Failing to rotate players fairly or adequately is a form of "playing the best and benching the rest". Youth coaches do this thinking they improve their chances of winning. I don't believe that is necessarily true nor is it  the right thing to do in kids' sports.

I believe that success in youth sports should be measured in several ways:
 1) Did ALL  the kids have an enjoyable and positive sports experience?
 2) Did EACH of them learn or improve in any way?
Finally and most significantly:
 3) Do they ALL want to play again next season?

As you can see, in my view, winning is not a criteria for success. Player participation, improvement, skill development  and enjoyment are all much more significant measures of a coach's success.

By focusing on these criteria (i.e. by teaching and playing ALL the players, not just the most talented),  the coach will ensure that each player has an opportunity to make a contribution. In this way the players not only learn an important life-lesson about playing together as members of a team but also the end result will likely be reflected in the team's improved Win/Loss record.

Unfortunately, winning is THE measure of success in most youth sports programs today. Winners are glorified, losers are vilified. Win/loss records have become the coach's measure of success, league championships and MVP's recognize winners. It's all about winning, not about KIDS having fun and developing skills. This is just one of the reasons that more than 70% of the kids who play organized sports drop out by age 12.

I would suggest that you try to look at your son's situation, his team and his coach, in terms of the three criteria above. If appropriate, discuss the matter with the coach and with league officials. Changes in kids sports programs are desperately needed today, but only concerned parents and caring coaches can effect change.