NFL introduces new ways for kids to play
In its TV ads, the National Football League emphasizes the hard hits, the quarterback sacks, and the razor-edged intensity of the professional game.
But when it comes to youth sports, the NFL is calling for a tamer approach, one that de-emphasizes violence and competition and emphasizes safety, fun, and teamwork.
The NFL has spent five years studying and researching youth sports, says Scott Lancaster, the league's director of youth programs. The result is the Junior Player Development Program, for youngsters 12 to 14. This is actually the third piece in a three-pronged plan to "take out all the negatives and emphasize the positives" in youth sports.
Mr. Lancaster was in Boston recently, alongside ex-New England Patriots coach Pete Carroll, promoting the NFL's overall youth strategy.
The junior development program is more serious than NFL Flag, the co-ed noncontact variation of regular football for 6- to-14-year-olds, in which "tackles" are made by pulling a flag (actually a plastic or cloth strip) from an opponent's belt. It's also more comprehensive than the Punt, Pass, and Kick competitions that have been around for years, and now attract 3.5 million boys and girls, partly through a tie-in with school physical-education classes.
In the Junior Player Development Program, young athletes suit up in full uniforms and learn all the football skills, including blocking and tackling.
But there are no games, only practices that incorporate competitive drills. Many of the coaches are not parents, but young men looking to kick-start coaching careers through a training and continuing-education program. The players learn how to play every position, not specializing in one, during highly organized, fast-paced practices similar to those in the NFL itself.
"The way the practices are structured, segmented, and timed," Mr. Carroll says, "means there is little down time or dead time. We want high intensity, a lot of movement, a lot of instruction. You don't see kids picking daisies. They're in there working, doing things, learning. It's not drudgery."
Fred Engh, president of the National Alliance for Youth Sports and author of "Why Johnny Hates Sports," believes the NFL's youth programs address the frustration unprepared youngsters often face in playing sports. In his view, these programs serve the same role as preschools and bicycle training wheels. "They let kids develop confidence," he says.
In traditional programs, this confidence, however, is often absent, because basic skills are not developed.
Mr. Engh's organization discovered the depth of this problem through a study conducted with six-to-eight-year-olds. They were tested on their basic sports skills, including throwing and catching, then graded using standards established by physical-education teachers. Four skill levels were delineated, but to the surprise of Engh, 49 percent of the children didn't even get on the board, falling below even the minimum criteria for evaluation.
"No wonder kids become frustrated," he says. "They often don't have the necessary skills to be able to play. We've got to give these kids the skills before they're thrust onto the field."
This "preschooling" is increasingly important, says Martha Ewing, an associate professor at Michigan State University's Youth Sports Institute in East Lansing, because many schools, especially in poorer communities, are cutting back on PE instruction.
The result is a gap in skills training that parents often can't fill. As a result, children may be enrolled in youth sports programs before they feel good about their performance level.
Football seems to require more ramping-up before youngsters are ready for full-fledged scrimmages and games.
"It's a complex game," Professor Ewing says. "There are so many people who have to coordinate their efforts. It's a lot for kids in the seventh or eighth grade, as they are learning, to digest everything and put it in a competitive environment all at one time."
The NFL's junior development program is geared to young people who have never played organized football, says John Pavia, who heads the Boston-area program in Chelsea, Mass.
Still, no one, including those who have played in Pop Warner leagues, for seven-to-15 year-olds, is rejected.
Because of the introductory nature of the program, Mr. Pavia says the drills follow an orderly progression and build to full contact. Each of three weekly practices is 90 minutes long and features a life-skill theme, such as responsibility, goal-setting, and sportsmanship.
The coaching motto that runs through all the NFL's junior programs, Lancaster says, is: "Whisper constructive criticism and yell encouragement."
The initial focus is the inner city. It started in New York as a pilot program last year, and is being introduced in Atlanta, Chicago, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, San Francisco, Washington, and Jacksonville, Fla., as well as Boston.
Inner-city participation could use a boost, and the NFL is moving aggressively to address the need by spending $100 million over eight years to cover all the costs, including completely outfitting players.
"There's a greater need in urban areas when it comes to tackle football," Lancaster says, "because it's expensive and there's less [sports] infrastructure in these communities."
Eventually, the idea is to replicate the program nationwide, including in suburbia, where fees would be charged. The NFL wants to create a series of access points to football, with the junior development program acting as a feeder system to high school programs.
There's a business motivation in play, too. "We're the No. 1 fan sport in many demographics, and we want to remain so well into the future," Lancaster says.
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