California high school football team uses Guardian Cap

I received an e-mail today from the Guardian Cap folks  that included a link to a story  about the San Lorenzo Valley High football team wearing their over-the-helmet protective pad.

I’ve posted before before about how we sent our son back to the JV football team with the Guardian Cap after his second concussion.  I am sharing this story because apparently the governing body of California high school football allows the Guardian Cap to be worn in games. We were told that Ohio wouldn’t allow them in a game because wearing one would invalidate the helmet’s warranty.  Since the majority of hits happen in practice; we were OK with him only wearing the Guardian at practice.

However, seeing that other states are allowing them in games, I think Ohio should consider allowing the Guardian (or other protective equipment) to be worn during games.

My 1st Coaching Clinic!

BCNaz Basketball Clinic Graphic

I held my first Hustle & Attitude coaching clinic last week and from all indications, it went very well!

My church – Beavercreek Church of the Nazarene – has a fantastic youth recreational basketball league.  I have been eager to hold a clinic and the league coordinator thought there was value for the coaches.  So, on December 10th at 6:30, 40 or so coaches gathered to see what this “hustle and attitude” thing was all about.

Being a basketball clinic, I organized it into four quarters.  The first quarter dealt with organizing and running practices; the second quarter was managing games (predominantly line-ups and playing time); the third quarter was working with parents; and the fourth quarter involved working with the kids.  The audience was right in my sweet spot – predominantly first-time coaches; not just first-time in this league…first time coaches.  We talked about the tenets of ‘Hustle & Attitude’; that hustling and having a positive attitude are the two things all children can do in youth sports regardless of athletic ability or skill level.  I tried to impress upon the coaches the important role they play in helping the children’s experience to be positive.  Particularly pointing out that practices that help achieve the league’s objectives and games where everyone has an equal opportunity to play don’t happen by accident – it takes planning and effort on their part.  I provided a 20+ page handout guide that included sample drills and worksheets for the coaches to use.  The audience reaction was positive during the clinic; particularly after the half-time popcorn snack!

In terms of feedback, I provided a survey for the coaches to fill out following the clinic.  I have posted some of the comments from the participants on the Testimonials page.  For each quarter, I asked them to rate the usefulness of the information from 1-Not Useful through 3-Useful and up to 5-Incredibly Useful.  The average scores for each quarter were 4.16…or Very Useful.

My goals for the clinic were to, first and foremost, educate coaches in best practices in coaching youth recreational sports; but also to find out the viability of holding these clinics in the future.  Given the reaction of the coaches and the feedback, I believe there is interest.  I made a couple of contacts that I hope pan out in terms of further clinics.

All in all, a very successful first time out.

Recreational vs Select/Travel Sports

The Hustle & Attitude philosophy I am espousing relates to positive youth recreational sports experiences.  Why do I specify recreational sports?  Because there is a difference between youth recreational sports and youth select/sports leagues and teams.

Perhaps a story would help make the difference clear.  A good friend of mine told me about his son’s experience in youth recreational soccer years ago.  His son, we’ll refer to him as ‘B’, was a very good and competitive soccer player.  My friend recounted that B was playing wing one game and dribblingSoccer Player the ball up the side of the field.  In soccer – youth soccer, in particular – the play is often to cross the ball into the center in order to set up a scoring opportunity.  B did just that.  And the ball crossed all the way across the middle of the field and went out of bounds on the other side.  Turns out B’s teammates were not as into the game as he was.  They either didn’t know what they were supposed to do or weren’t willing to put in as much effort as B.  He could easily have dribbled the ball into the center of the field and set up his own scoring opportunity.  But, the right thing to do within the game is to cross the ball.  But it wasn’t working…B was getting negative results within the sport for doing the right thing – and this was very discouraging to him.  B and his father talked about it and realized that playing in a recreational league would not satisfy his competitive desires.  They looked into local select soccer teams.  B tried out for one and has been playing for years with other boys who are competing as diligently as he is.

Select sports teams differ from youth recreational sports teams in player selection, playing time, and purpose.

  • Player Selection:  In youth recreational sports leagues, every player that registers gets on a team.  Select and travel teams have tryouts and only a few players make the team.  In addition, the fees for players to register are higher for select and travel teams.
  • Playing Time:  As I have advocated, every player in a youth recreational sports league has the same opportunity to play – in terms of game playing time and playing multiple positions.  Players who make it on a select/travel team are not guaranteed playing time.  The best players at each position get the most playing time.
  • Purpose:  I believe the purpose of recreational sports leagues is to provide athletic opportunities for all youth.  I believe that the purpose of select/travel teams is to provide athletic opportunities for youth seeking competitive experiences in sport.  Recreational teams play each other in a regular season and then often and end of season tournament.  Perhaps there is an all star team selected and those players may continue to play (e.g. this is how Little League Baseball operates).  The idea is to allow the children in the neighborhood the greatest opportunity for a positive and fun sports experience.  Select/travel teams may play in a league, but most often play in tournaments across the region where they are located.  The idea is to compete and win in league and tournament play.

It’s not that the tenets of the Hustle & Attitude philosophy can’t be applied in youth select/travel sports leagues; coaches in all youth sports leagues would probably like to have all their players play and emphasize fun.  However, with different purposes come appropriate differences in player selection and playing time that explain why mine is a youth recreational sports philosophy.


Bleacher Report gets advance screening of Concussion

Good piece today by Mike Freeman on his reaction following an advanced screening of the movie ‘Concussion’ due out in December. via

The APA on Youth Tackle Football & “Hit Counts”

When I started this blog, I didn’t think the majority of my posts would be about youth tackle football, but this is a vital topic of conversation in youth recreational sports.  My last post mentioned the National Association of Youth Sports.  Another organization I follow on Twitter is The Aspen Sports Institute (@AspenInstSports) because they share a similar philosophy of promoting positive youth recreational sports experiences.  Recently, they posted a link to a statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics on Tackling in Youth Football.  Interestingly, while I was mulling over what to say about the AAP’s statement, the Oct. 26, 2015 issue of Time Magazine included a piece by Sean Gregory advocating tracking hits to the head in football similarly to how baseball tracks pitch counts.  The AAP makes some solid recommendations including sort of agreeing with Gregory’s proposal for “hit counts“.

Youth Tackle FootballDespite some rather dubious conclusions (does the statement “a higher proportion of injuries result from contact than noncontact mechanisms” really require 5 citations?!?!), the AAP statement includes a couple of nuggets of information, including:

  • The risk of catastrophic injury during participation in football is comparable to the risk in gymnastics and lower than the risk in ice hockey.
  • The incidence of injuries sustained by children ages 7 to 13 years playing football was similar to, and in fact slightly lower than, that of baseball and boys’ soccer.

The AAP statement is balanced; while presenting data that limiting Flag Football Picturethe contact in practices or not having contact until a certain age may reduce the number of head injuries, they also present the position that delaying the teaching of proper tackling and getting tackled techniques might actually make the risk of injury higher.  Their conclusions / recommendations include changing the culture of of football to one where there is zero tolerance for illegal head-first hits, removing tackling from football altogether (they admit this is quite radical and not likely), expanding nontackling leagues (see my previous post recommending flag football before middle school), making efforts to reduce the number of hits to the head, delaying the age when tackling is introduced, strengthening the athlete’s necks, and making every effort to have athletic trainers on the sidelines of football practices and games.

With respect to the AAP’s recommendation to reduce the number of hits, they are at least partially in line with the idea of “hit counts”.  Gregory offers what he calls a modest proposal:  regulating hits to the head in football just as we count pitches in baseball.  He notes that this would require outfitting helmets with sensors and then determining how many shots a player can sustain before sitting out.  A Google search of football helmet impact sensors resulted in a couple of products ranging from $49.99 to $199.99; so, the idea of including sensors in youth football helmets might make an already expensive sport more so.  But, if it contributes to reducing the number of long-term head injuries to youth football players; what parent wouldn’t pay the additional cost?  Although the AAP cites the need for more research in the area, they reference a study that found a mean of 774 impacts per high school player during a single season (the number varied by position, with linemen sustaining the higher number of impacts) and another where the average number of hits per 7-8 year-old player was 107 with more occurring during practices than games.  The statement also reported that the number of impacts increased with increasing level of play from youth to high school.

I recommend additional research with the expected result being the establishment of standard age-based ‘hit counts’ that would then be measured using sensors installed in helmets.  In the meantime, leagues ought to consider simply counting collisions involving the head during practice and games as a start – and limiting them based on localized results.  As Gregory asks in his piece:  “Baseball started somewhere.  Why can’t football do the same?”

National Standards for Youth Sports

Today I came across a youth recreational basketball league that required parents to read the National Standards for Youth Sports as part of signing their child up for the league.  I was a little embarrassed with myself that I was not familiar with these national standards.  What kind of youth recreational sports enthusiast am I, right?

So, I did what we all do when we are trying to find information – I Google’d it.  Turns out I am familiar with the organization that put the standards together – the National Association for Youth Sports (NAYS).  NAYS has been around since 1981 and espouses to be “America’s leading advocate for positive and safe sports for children“.  I have followed them on Twitter (@NAYS_edu) for a while and appreciate their content and efforts to provide positive youth recreational sports experiences.

After reviewing the standards, I have the following analysis/commentary:  the standards provide welcome guidance for adults – and the children themselves – for ensuring a positive experience; and are very much in line with my Hustle & Attitude philosophy.  I think leagues and individuals that adhere to these standards would be well on their way to giving children a fun, safe, and positive sports experience. My specific thoughts on the standards include:

  • The age-specific recommendations in Standard #1 seem appropriate; particularly those that recognize different development levels based on age
  • I completely agree with the recommendation for training of adults involved in youth recreational sports; I believe that coaches are the most in need of training – and I will be giving my first Hustle & Attitude coaching clinic in December
  • One of the most important things our children can learn from their youth recreational sports experiences is good sportsmanship – the essence of Standard #6
  • My wife pointed out that the recommendations concerning first-aid certification and CPR qualified personnel being present at all times in Standard #7 are really good; but what responsibility does the league have to provide these resources?

The ‘Equal Play Opportunity’ standard is perhaps my favorite.  As I mention in the ‘About’ page, providing equal opportunities for all children to participate in sports is one of the things I am most passionate about.  To me, non-discrimination goes without saying, but the implementation items #2, #4, and #5 are the ones that most speak to me.  I will have more to say later about how wrong it is that finances would keep a child from playing sports – money should not be an impediment.  A key tenet of the Hustle & Attitude philosophy is to provide equal playing time for all participants.  And, I have had the privilege of coaching children who were not necessarily diagnosed with a disability, but were developmentally challenged.  I call it a privilege because the relationships have been some of the most rewarding in my youth recreational sports coaching career (I believe the feeling is mutual for the children, too).

Overall, I think the National Standards for Youth Sports are a valuable tool in the effort to continue to provide positive youth recreational sports experiences.  My Hustle & Attitude philosophy and the practical application is in line with these standards and amplifies many of them.

The Tragedy of Evan Murray; More on Youth Football

Charles Pierce has a stunning piece on Grantland about the death of Evan Murray.  His commentary about how “Evan is dead because he played American football” is an in your face, blunt and frank assessment of the state of high school football in America.  His suggestion that nobody should play football until they are at least 21, as outrageous as it might seem at first blush, merits consideration.  As I said in my previous post about youth football, I recommend flag football as an alternative before high school.  But, as Pierce points out, 13 high school football players have died from injuries between 2012 and 2014.  Recently, while a spectator at a high school football game, I cheered loudly and enthusiastically when our team’s cornerback ‘blew up’ the opposing team’s wide receiver.  The hit was hard enough to knock the receiver’s helmet off and the receiver remained on the ground for several minutes before being helped off the field.  I found Pierce’s comments about the fans cheering the hits that led to the deaths of the three players mentioned in his piece very convicting…what if the hit I cheered so loudly had resulted in serious injury or death?  How would I feel about watching football, then? Perhaps high school is too early for tackle football.  Or, perhaps it is time for a national conversation about ‘American football’.  Pierce refers to Teddy Roosevelt’s role in bringing about standard rules and policies governing the sport to make it safer.  I don’t know the answer.  But, I think it’s time we all have the discussion.

PTI and Youth Sports

Most of my posts (that is to say the other thPTI Imageree) are researched and put together over several days, but I am reacting to yesterday evening’s edition of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption (PTI).  I really enjoy watching Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser’s witty banter and reasoned discussion of the issues of the day in sports.  And, as I was ending my week, I settled in to see what they had to say.  I only saw the first 10 minutes of the episode (you can download the podcast of the episode) and found a couple of interesting items with respect to youth sports.

First was a discussion of the finding that 87 of 91 former NFL players who donated their brains to science after death tested positive for a brain disease.  Wilbon rightfully asked “What does this mean for future generations of parents?”  A question I discussed in detail in my previous post:  Should My Son Play Youth Tackle Football?  I appreciated Kornheiser’s push for restraint with respect to jumping to conclusions like this is “the end of football”.  In an example of the reasoned discussion typical on the show, he asked questions about conclusions that should be derived from this sample set.

Then was the story about the two football players who assaulted a referee in a game (make no bones about it – what they did was assault).  On Good Morning America, they claimed that they were instructed to do so by their coach.  Again, the discussion was relevant and reasoned.  Wilbon said:  “Kids do follow the orders of the person they call coach”.  I appreciate his point about how important coaches are to our kids.  Kornheiser then suggested that real courage in this situation – while admitting that he doesn’t know if he would have been able to do it himself –  would have been the kids recognizing the demand was wrong and saying “no”.

My takeaways:  the sport of football is at an inflection point with the continued discussion about the risks of concussions (upcoming Will Smith movie) and everyone should all be cognizant of the crucial role our kids’ coaches play in helping shape them as young people.

Should My Son Play Youth Tackle Football?

Time Football CoverWhy Football Matters Cover ImageI love football. I know love is a strong word.  My wife tells my kids and I to think about that when for instance, one of my boys says he loves pizza; “we love each other”, she says…we just really like other things like pizza and football. But, you know, I think I really do love football. I grew up with Saturdays on the couch watching college football and Pat Summerall and John Madden broadcasting the NFL on Sundays. I played high school football. I played intramural flag football in college and the first few years of my Air Force career. I have been in the same fantasy football league for almost 20 years. And I’ve coached several seasons of youth flag football.  Of all the sports I have played, coached, or watched, it is definitely my favorite.

However, over the last few years, the depth of my devotion to the sport has been challenged.  And I am not alone.  With the increasing information about concussions and other injuries, many people have been struggling with what Tim Keown calls the “Grand Reconsideration” in his piece in the July 8, 2013 ‘Kids In Sports’ issue of ESPN The Magazine:  i.e. Should I let my son play football?  Many are deciding the answer is “no”.  According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, participation in tackle football fell 26.5% among US kids ages 6 to 12 from 2007 to 2013 and according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, football participation in US high schools was down 2.3% in the 2012-13 season from the 2008-09 season.  According to a Bloomberg Politics poll last December, “50 percent of Americans would not want their sons to play football” (quote taken from ESPN the Magazine article on Chris Borland mentioned below).  Even President Obama, when asked this question, replied “If I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football”.

My high school football coach would correct people that said football was a contact sport; he would say it is a collision sport.  The violence of these collisions is part of what both attracts us to and repels us from the sport.  The act of putting on the shoulder pads and helmet, lining up against an opponent who may be bigger and stronger than you, and willfully engaging in a physical test takes courage.  In his book Why Football Matters: My Education In the Game, Mark Edmundson highlights how football “teaches one thing kids can’t get anywhere else.  It teaches them how to get knocked down and get back up”.  Enduring the challenges football avails as part of a team of peers builds some of the greatest bonds young men can form as well.  Keown captures it this way:  football “gives you something you don’t get anywhere but in a war, a reference point that allows you to face any of life’s difficulties – mental, physical, emotional – through the sweaty prism of a double-day workout in 102-degree heat.  If I could get through that, I can get through this“.  As Amy Stover, the mother of Chad Stover, whose death is the subject of ‘The Tragic Risks of An American Obsession’ article in the Sept 29, 2014 issue of Time magazine, says, “Football really, really promotes community”.  Think something like Friday Night Lights (the fantastic book, the decent movie, and/or the excellent TV show!); the players form a bond, the parents a shared anxiety and excitement, and the town a gathering place and common discussion topic.

At what point, however, are the risks too great to counter the benefits of playing football? As Keown asks:  “If football is something you hope to survive intact, with working limbs and kidneys and a brain that functions into your 50s, how is it defensible?” Earlier this year, Chris Borland decided to retire from the NFL after one season in the league.  He cited the risk of traumatic brain injury as the reason.  According to a National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance Study (as reported in the Time magazine article cited throughout this post), football led to more concussions than any other high school sport in the 2013-2014 school year with 33 per 10,000 players (girls’ soccer was second with 18 per 10,000 players).  Further, the concussion that led Borland to retire occurred on a routine play – and that factored into his (and every parent’s) decision.  Sure you can get a concussion from a bicycling or driving accident; in football, the danger can increase even when you do everything right.  The reality is that it simply isn’t possible to play football without getting hit in the head.

With my boys, my wife and I had decided that they wouldn’t play tackle football until high school (I didn’t play until high school).  They played several seasons of flag football and really enjoyed it.  We changed our minds when the boys were in middle school and the school had 7th and 8th grade teams.  We rationalized the decision by saying that the boys would be coached by people trained in proper football fundamentals and have an athletic training staff available to diagnose and treat injuries (not usually the case with pee wee or Pop Warner youth football).  They both played through their freshman years in high school.  In October of 2013, during their freshman season, in response to reading an editorial on CNN, “Why I’m Saying Goodbye to Football“, I took to Facebook to get advice from my friends.  I wrote:   As you know, I have two boys who are playing high school football . One has had two concussions already. This article is another in a long line where folks are considering or regret letting their kids play football due to the possible long term implications. Am I being irresponsible? Or, is it that for every instance of long-term damage that I read, I think I know of at least a half-dozen or more who made it through their football careers unscathed – and moreover with significant memories and even life lessons about competition and teamwork. I justify the decision as not wanting to limit the boys’ activities due to fear. But, I have always said “There’s a fine line between courage and stupidity”.  The replies were a mix of ‘you can’t protect your kids from everything’ for continuing to play and ‘I’ve already decided my son won’t play when he gets older’ against it.  What we did was try to lessen the risk of head injury by requiring our boys to wear Dome padded skull caps under their helmets and, for my son with the concussion history, a Guardian cap over his helmet during practice (they are not allowed during games in Ohio).

We were likely experiencing aspects of the ‘Grand Reconsideration’; i.e. “some hedging, some hope and some willful ignorance”.  We hedged on our decision to wait until high school.  We hoped that the boys would be protected with the additional measures.  And, we showed some willful ignorance as we demonstrated the conflicted nature of the football parent:  looking forward to the game all week and (sort of) dreading it once it started.  I have no regrets about how my boys did it, though. One of my boys decided not to play as a sophomore (non injury-related; he just decided he didn’t want to play anymore).  After playing as a sophomore, my son with the two previous concussions decided not to play his junior year (this season).  With respect to counseling him, I didn’t want him to stop doing something he really enjoyed because he was afraid.  But, I applaud the maturity of his decision – he said it was because he would like to join the armed forces and understands that they are cautious of the number of concussions a recruit has had.  However, when asked if he misses it (he is a student athletic trainer for the football team), he told me that he sometimes wants to run out there when the coaches call for the position he used to play.  Football is like no other sport in terms of the camaraderie and shared experiences that it provides.  But, it is also quite risky…thus the question remains.

What do I recommend with respect to youth football?

  • Children shouldn’t play tackle football until there are trained, full-time adult coaches with an athletic training staff to diagnose and treat injuries

    • I really think flag football is a great alternative; tackling and offensive/defensive lineman techniques can be taught properly starting at the middle-school age (frankly those coaches will probably appreciate not having to get the boys to unlearn bad habits or techniques picked up in youth football)
  • All levels of tackle football below college should provide something like the Guardian caps for the boys to use during practice; the games are only one night a week, the boys practice multiple times during the week – many more opportunities for collisions
  • Assuming there is still youth football below middle school, continue the emphasis (like USA Football’s Heads Up program) on awareness and training of youth football coaches and parents

Nolan Harrison, entitlement, & participation trophies

Recently, Nolan Harrison caused a stir when he posted that he was returning the trophies that his sons earned for participation in youth sports.  Harrison’s point that his sons should earn trophies brings to light the question of ‘participation trophies’.

Participation trophies are a common experience in youth recreational sports where every child that is signed up receives a trophy at the end of the season.  Essentially, they receive a trophy just for showing up.  Some see this as positive reinforcement for our youth; that they should be rewarded for their effort (see SB Nation post – the author makes three good points and then there’s the 4th…).  Others however, see this as part of a larger parenting concern with creating a culture of entitlement with our children (see Losing is Good For You op-ed from the New York Times for a sports-related discussion and In Praise of the Ordinary Child piece in Time magazine for a more broad discussion to include education).

The Hustle & Attitude philosophy accommodates both sides of this discussion.  I disagree with Mr.Harrison when he implies his sons are not entitled to something just because they did their best.  I think there is merit to rewarding a child for giving their all in competition; whether they win or lose or make the all star team.  However, I agree with Erik Brady of USA Today when he points out that the kids are savvy enough to recognize who the best players are, regardless of whether everyone gets a trophy.

My sons have shelves full of trophies from all the youth sports in which they participated.  Neither my boys nor my wife and I ever pay them any attention.  And more importantly, that’s not why my boys played recreational sports.  They played for the fun of competition and the camaraderie with their friends and teammates.  The trophies were an after-thought.

My coaching style included recognizing the athletes after each game.  In every sport, I had a “Hustle & Attitude” award that was given out after each game.  The idea was to recognize the child that best represented the concepts of good hustle or a positive attitude.  The award was tied to the sport we were playing.  For example, in baseball, I gave out a pack of baseball cards.  In addition, we would recognize an offensive and defensive MVP for each game.  The MVPs would each get a wristband that they could wear during the next game.  After each game, the previous MVPs would give back the wristbands to be awarded again.

My boys with their 'MVP' wristbands
My boys with their ‘MVP’ wristbands
This is not necessarily an ‘everyone gets a reward’ thing – most of the time, I didn’t keep track who I gave them to – but, it did provide an opportunity to recognize a kid who didn’t always shine.  For instance, even though your star pitcher pitched well and the kid that played shortstop and left field played his usual solid game with good plays; you might take the opportunity to name the kid who made a (perhaps surprisingly) great play at their position as the Defensive MVP.
Again, as rewards go; the kids know who did well, who the stars are, and who the weaker players are.  Coaches (and all the adults involved) have to be genuine with them.  You can’t talk up and award the Offensive MVP wristband to the kid that struck out looking in both of his at bats just because you want to lift his spirits or because you think it is his turn for the wristband.  The rest of the kids (and parents) will see right through that and you will have lost some measure of credibility with them.
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