Reflections on Youth Football

Investing Your Time, Seeing the Payoff

Yesterday was the end of my son’s football season, and I’m kind of depressed about it.

They lost in the playoffs, in the semifinals – always the most disappointing round to lose in, since you’re one step away from playing in a championship, but the team you just lost to gets to do that instead.

The game itself was a good one, with two excellent teams that do everything well and some things exceptionally well. The other team, as it turned out, was just a little bit better at blocking and tackling, and had probably one or two more highly skilled players than we did. But still, at halftime we were tied 12-12. In the second half, though, their defense started to take over, and was able to disrupt our backfield on nearly every play, causing a few fumbles and lost yardage, and we were never able to overcome that. Then our best running back got hurt, twice, and wasn’t able to return for the last few minutes of the game. Still, our defense refused to give up, and made some big plays, but it wasn’t enough to stop the opponent from scoring two more touchdowns. Final score: 24-12.

The other team hadn’t allowed a single point all season, yet we fought them tooth and nail and gave them a bit of a scare.

So after the bitter end to our most intense battle of the year, the coaches gathered the players for the usual post-game meeting, A few of the nine-year old young men were crying. I myself had gotten a little bit misty-eyed as the game ended, and the kids lined up to congratulate the other team. No more weekend games, no more 2-hour practices three nights a week. Earlier in the season I had found reasons to complain about the time commitment for both the boy and the parents. Now, I was sorry to see it end.

The coaches gave their talks to the kids, and told them they had a lot to be proud of. And they do. This was the first season of tackle football for nearly every player on the team.

What started as a bunch of undisciplined individual players turned into a real team, through hard work and lots of hours on the practice field. The defense slowly matured and developed into a smart, aggressive group. The offense learned that you have to block, and hold those blocks, so your running back has time to get past the first group and into the secondary. The whole team learned to not make dumb mistakes, like jumping offsides, or forgetting the snap count, or forgetting to put your mouth guard in, which is 15 yards at this level.

They learned all this with the help of their coaches, who brought a nice blend of teaching, fun, and winning. As a parent, I appreciate this more than I can say. And as a parent who helped with the chains in the home games, I observed first hand some sideline conduct by a couple of coaches on the other teams that made me appreciate our coaches even more.

I know my own son Jacob really learned a lot, and he never complained once about going to practice, even when it was 90 degrees. He played quarterback, which at this level is more about getting a clean exchange from center and handing off than it is about passing, but it’s still a demanding position. You have to know all the plays well, and execute all those exchanges without making many mistakes, and you get to throw a few passes too.

But the most important thing they all learned was “team”. Football is a unique game where the gritty details of blocking and tackling are usually the deciding factor in the game. And this can’t work unless the kids who do that dirty work understand that as a team, they can go farther than they can as individuals, and that even though you don’t see many highlights of great blocks and tackles on Sportscenter, your coaches and teammates are counting on you to do the exhausting, unglamorous work that helps the team win.

And watching a bunch of fourth graders learn all this as the season went on was a beautiful thing.

So, my personal thanks to everybody connected to Jacob’s team: the other kids, the parents and helpers, the league, the referees, and most of all, the coaches. Thanks for creating an environment that allows kids to come out and try something new, in a demanding sport, and thanks for walking that fine line between teaching and competition. It’s not easy, but when it works, it is something to behold, and something to take pride in, for everybody that helps make it come alive. Football is THE sport in Wheaton, Illinois, where we live, and I think I just saw some of the reasons why it is so popular: it builds character, and teaches valuable lessons, and the community has invested itself in the sport to a great degree. Of course, too much investment by adults into what is ultimately a game for kids can have a down side, sometimes, with too much attention to winning at too young an age, and I’ve heard some rumblings about that at the more competitive levels. So time will tell.

But as for this year, I’m pretty sure all the kids will have good memories of this season just completed, and I’m also pretty sure most of them will come back next year because they found it very worthwhile. And that really says it all.