Youth Sports Profile: Football

Is this all-American sport too risky, or just right?

Kids football practice
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Are you ready for some football? (American-style football, that is. In the U.S., the game that's called football most everywhere else in the world is known as soccer.) Find out if this fall favorite is right for your child.

The basics: Football is a team sport, with 11 players per team facing off against each other on a 100-yard-long field. Each team has separate offensive and defensive players. The offense must move the football down the field, either by running or passing.

The offensive team has four chances (called “downs”) to advance the ball by 10 yards. If they can’t, they must turn the ball over to the other team. Teams score points by crossing the goal line with the ball on foot (touchdown, 6 points) or by kicking the ball through the goal (field goal, 3 points). The defense tries to prevent the offense from advancing the ball by tackling or blocking the player with the ball.

In flag or touch football, rules are similar but there is no contact. Defensive players stop offensive players from advancing by tagging them with one or two hands, or grabbing their flags (which are sturdy vinyl strips clipped onto a belt the players wear). Teams may be smaller (5-on-5 or 7-on-7). Many non-contact leagues are co-ed.

Age kids can start: NFL Flag, Amateur Athletic Union and community flag football programs usually begin at age 5 or 6. In schools, players often start tackle football in middle school.

Kids can play Pop Warner tackle football from age 5 to 16, but must meet strict weight-for-age standards.

Skills needed/used: Strength and/or speed, hand-eye coordination, teamwork.

Best for kids who are: Team-oriented, disciplined.

Season/when played: Tackle: fall. Touch/flag: spring and/or fall.

Team or individual? Team.

Levels: Pop Warner, American Youth Football, AAU, and NFL Flag all have teams grouped by age. The best teams can progress through regional and national playoff competitions. Many middle and high schools have teams.

College and university teams are regulated by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and pro football teams play in the U.S. and in Europe.

Appropriate for kids with special needs: Pop Warner has a Challenger league for ages 5 to 16. It is non-contact, flag football for children with cognitive and physical disabilities. Players may have an on-field helper if necessary.

Fitness factor: Can be high, with different positions requiring varying levels of speed and strength. Certain positions see more playing time than others.

Equipment: Most is provided through leagues or schools. Tackle football requires a helmet, shoulder pads, shoes/cleats, girdle with hip and tailbone pads, thigh and knee pads, chin strap, and mouthguard. Many leagues will ask for a refundable equipment deposit (approximately $200).

Costs: Team fees for non-contact leagues tend to be lower ($100-$150/season). Fees for tackle leagues are higher, since they must cover equipment, referees, and so on. Fees vary greatly, from $150/season to $300 or much more.

Time commitment required: In tackle leagues or on school teams, players practice for 2-hour sessions, 3 to 4 times a week. Games are usually once a week with a season of about 8 games (sometimes followed by playoff games, which may require travel).

The Amateur Athletic Union offers recreational programs in tackle and flag football. These typically require less of a time commitment than school or travel/competitive teams. The same goes for other flag football options, like NFL Flag.

Potential for injury: Medium to high. Although most coaches, schools, and leagues have a strong commitment to safety, in a contact sport there is always a risk of injury. Many high school and college-level teams begin a tough practice schedule in the summer, so heat stress is an additional risk. You can get a tip sheet on preventing football injuries from the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine.

How to find a program:

Governing bodies:

If your child likes football, also try: Lacrosse, hockey, powerlifting

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