Tip #2 – Sign younger kids up for Flag Football – Flag football is an underappreciated sport, often treated as a cheap imitation of tackle football. Hence, the huge rush to strap helmets onto our five- and six-year-olds. What everyone is failing to realize is that the skills and techniques one can learn and practice in flag football provide foundational knowledge that is difficult to gain in organized tackle football. Flag football is fun, can provide an opportunity to practice basic skills such as catching and throwing a football, and also requires more complicated skills that, if taught by a few experienced coaches, are much more valuable than the experience of strapping on helmets and running into one another.
For example, spacing and leverage are two concepts that are very difficult to teach, particularly in a standard 11-versus-11 game of organized tackle football. It’s much better for kids to learn and practice these concepts in games of five or six per side. For receivers, it’s important to learn to recognize such things as whether the defenders are covering with man or zone technique, whether the players are using outside or inside leverage, and whether they are playing press or off-man.
It may sound counterintuitive, but flag football can even teach tackling technique. Outside players are taught to pursue while maintaining leverage by keeping the opposing offensive player inside, and inside players are taught to work from the inside out, which properly corrals the offensive player for a defensive player to “make the tackle”—in this case grabbing the flag. It is also very important for defensive players to master pursuit angles and these are more easily taught, understood, and practiced with fewer players on the field. When you have eleven seven-year-olds in helmets and pads chasing a single ball carrier, it’s pure mayhem. There are no pursuit angles in a mob of players chasing and running into one another and falling down. It’s pointless.
Flag football also teaches more than just proper positioning. Because the flags are placed on the hips, they provide a great reference point for defenders tracking the player. In tackle football, a very important concept is tracking the near hip with your eyes and maintaining leverage to get into proper position for the tackle. If flag players are taught this and practice tracking the flag in games, their skills at the next level will be wildly improved.
Tip #3 – Recognize that playing experience is much more important than coaching. Many parents today push their kids into organized football at younger ages, which moves them from the parks and playgrounds to supposedly organized practice fields. Kids and their parents often believe they need coaching and instruction at a very young age to teach them how to play the sport and become great. But great players develop on their own, because of an innate passion for what they do.
Coaches can teach techniques, skills, game plans and strategy. But coaches can’t teach instincts and certainly can’t teach passion for the game and the fun of playing it. These are things that must come from within each player. These are things that a player must develop through his own experiences and through trial and error. The playground or park experience without rules imposed by coaches or referees and without adult interference or interruption, is far and away the best way for children to learn how to play sports. No amount of coaching or instruction can replace or replicate the instincts and experience gained from lots and lots of pick-up games at the local park.