The Game of Smart

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Football-big-thumb~2In his book What’s So Funny? actor Tim Conway talks about his experience playing youth football in Chagrin Falls, Ohio in the 1940’s. He says that in those days you weren’t simply given a jersey, you had to earn a spot on a team. He talks about earning his by facing off in a tackling drill against a boy roughly fifty pounds heavier than himself. He recalls that when he heard the whistle he put his head down and ran straight into the other boy. Then, “I felt that I’d gone to another place. My body seemed to accordion and my head settled into my lap. As I lay there, I could hear the faint sound of my teammates applauding. ‘All right, Conway’,” The coach yelled to him, ‘You’ve got a uniform’.”

Sometime later that same season Tim took another serious hit, this time in a game. The impact was so severe that for a brief time laying there on the field, he recalls that he lost all feeling below his shoulders. The coaches and staff picked him off and brushed him off and after a couple of additional scary fainting incidents he was seen by a doctor who gave him a neck brace to wear for a few weeks. Once the neck brace was off he went right back to playing football. It was only after experiencing severe back trouble later in life that he was made aware of what had actually happened to him decades before; one of his vertebrae had been broken. The doctor told him that he’d been lucky not to have been permanently disabled by the blow.

While this story might seem like an example of archaic coaching strategies and country bumpkin medicine, the unfortunate reality is that while the systems available today to help ensure player safety are vastly different than they were decades ago, the thought processes that lead to sports related injuries have remained largely unchanged. The “man up” and “rub some dirt on it” mentality is still deeply rooted in our nation’s collective sports psyches. Fortunately, there’s a highly qualified and nationally recognized organization that’s working to change that.

USA Football is the official youth football development partner of the NFL and the NFL Player Association. Endowed in 2002, it’s an independent, non-profit organization that leads the development of youth football players and coaches through educational programs and innovative resources. In this, the organization acts as a support system for coaches by certifying them annually in their Coaching Education Program. They also promote the Player Progression Model of coaching which addresses education by age level in both tackle and flag football. The latest information and techniques on skill building, equipment and safety are made available to each coach for a nominal yearly membership fee. While these services and the expert training alone would make USA football stand out as a shining star among organizations leading the charge for youth player safety, it’s their sponsorship of the “Heads Up” Football Program that puts them in a league all their own.

Supported by organizations like The Centers for Disease Control, the American College of Sports Medicine, Pop Warner Football and the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, the “Heads Up” Football Program is advertised as “the new standard in football”, as it takes a comprehensive approach to keeping youth football players safe. The education and certification of individually selected Player Safety Coaches (PSC) is the first facet of the “Heads Up” program. Leagues that would like to be “Heads Up” certified are asked to send one person to the intensive PSC training programs that are run free of charge. Once this Player Safety Coach has completed the day long program and is certified in concussion awareness, equipment fitting, the “Heads Up” tackling method and the effects and needs of their players in regards to heat and hydration, the PSC then brings that information back to his own league and trains his coaches. Each coach is then responsible for teaching the methods to their players and the league is responsible for holding a Parent Clinic to educate moms and dads on the philosophy and rudiments of the “Heads Up” Football Program.

It seems so simple, doesn’t it? Why wouldn’t a mom or dad want their child taught to tackle with their head up in order to avoid concussion? How could encouraging proper hydration be a bad thing? Isn’t having a properly fitted helmet and pads necessary? Of course, and there isn’t a parent or coach out there who would dispute that in public. The problem is the philosophy that too many coaches and parents still cling to in their heart of hearts: The Philosophy of Tough.

The Philosophy of Tough says that my kid or my team is tougher than your kid or team, so in that, I as a parent or coach are tougher than you. The Philosophy of Tough is driven by pride. It says that my kid doesn’t need a water break, even if he’s been running drills for hours in the blistering sun or the freezing cold. The Philosophy of Tough says that I will sit quietly in the stands while a coach plays my kid until he is exhausted and vomiting because my kid is a starter and starters are expected to man-up, be a good example to their teammates and to get their job on the field done. The Philosophy of Tough says that my kid can get his “bell rung”, but get right back out there after a five minute sit down on the bench. Unfortunately, this philosophy doesn’t work long term. You could ask former NFL players Junior Seau or Justin Strzelczyk about their views on The Philosophy of Tough, if they were still alive. Unfortunately, both men were coached under the banner of this Philosophy and as a result of the subsequent traumatic brain injuries suffered while playing football, neither man is still with us to offer his opinion.

By sponsoring the “Heads Up” Football Program, USA Football is working toward the eventual demise of archaic thought processes like The Philosophy of Tough. Every coach, kid and parent that not only learns but also embraces the core information that is being taught is bringing the game one step closer to what it should be. The Game of Smart.

Smart players hydrate, remember to tackle properly and speak up when they still don’t feel quite right, even after being cleared to play by a team’s medical staff. Smart coaches are willing to admit that no matter how long they’ve been coaching, there’s always more to learn and are willing to go to training on a yearly basis, because winning a game isn’t nearly as important as winning at life. Smart parents know that they are their child’s most important piece of safety equipment.

New York Giants Head Coach Tom Coughlin is quoted on the USA Football website as saying, “Only allow your child to play when you know that USA Football Certification is there for the coach and you know that your child is being taught the proper fundamentals of the game and that real intelligence has gone into the preparation of the practices.” As a mom of three boys who all played youth football, I couldn’t agree more.

You are your child’s voice and their first line of defense. Don’t ever be afraid to to your little league commissioner or your child’s high school athletic director and ask if the coaches are USA Football and “Heads Up” certified. If the answer is ‘no’, ask why not. If the coaches, commissioners or directors brush you off, explain that they were certified years ago, or explain that they have their own coaching and safety techniques in place, think very carefully. It’s their choice as an organization to miss out on a free, one day certification program. But it’s your choice as a parent to decide not to buy into The Philosophy of Tough. Let’s all stand up and choose better for our children; let’s put the pride away and play The Game of Smart.

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