I recently had the opportunity to attend the first ever Youth Football Summit held by the Iowa High School Athletic Association. In attendance were representatives from the IHSAA, high school head coaches, and youth football organizers from around the state. The event was held to facilitate a sharing of ideas, methods, and issues related to the youth football experience from a wide variety of perspectives.

The state presented 3 pieces of information that were notable, although not surprising. You’ve likely come across other articles relating to each of these points.

  • From 2012-2016, Iowa high school football participation has declined from 21,000 to 19,000. They’re expecting the trend to continue when the 2017 numbers are totaled.
  • The state annually polls high school athletes asking them what they’re looking to get out of the sport participation. Every year, ‘winning’ is ranked near the bottom of the list while other items such as having fun, participating with friends, and learning the game routinely rank at the top. The question was asked, “Are we conducting our youth programs in these ways?”
  • An athletic trainer reported that she and her colleagues treat athletes for injuries resulting from overuse (specialization) at a far higher rate than concussions.

The most invigorating part of the summit came from discussions about the connectivity, or lack thereof, between high school programs (the varsity coach) and local youth programs. In my view, high school coaches are among the most qualified persons to determine the proper youth football experience, or at least weigh in on the debates surrounding it. In fact, I think it’s a growing responsibility that these coaches must take an active role in. A panel of varsity coaches at the summit reported on their efforts (battles) to be more involved with their local youth programs.Yet, there was a prevailing sentiment that most high school coaches wouldn’t set foot in a room full of youth football organizers—even those in their own community. Why is this?

First and foremost, I think it is a matter of control. High school coaches have no formal control over youth football in their own towns. Youth organizers and parents are free to start their own clubs or independent teams to participate in leagues and formats of their choosing. Often, this is done without any consult from the high school coach. One coach reported that a parent in his community was unhappy with one organization, so they went and started there own, competing for the same local kids to participate. When that process repeated itself and a third team came to be, the coach knew it was time to step in. I spoke to another coach a few years back who admitted, “The local club (essentially a feeder program to his school) formed without my knowledge. They didn’t ask my opinion or engage me at any point. I don’t necessarily agree with how they do things, but these kids and parents are walking through my doors in a couple of years and I don’t feel it’s in my best interest to alienate them by telling them they’re doing it wrong. So I just stay away from it all.”

Conversely, some youth organizers do seek the advice of the high school coach but these attempts to connect produce meaningless results or go unanswered altogether. Don’t immediately attribute this to arrogance or disinterest among the high school coaches though. Aside from the lack of control, I believe there is a justified perception from high school coaches that there is a lack of awareness among those organizing and coaching youth football that directly result in some of the issues football is facing. We’ve all encountered the overzealous coach whose motivations for coaching are solely to win. Those that, despite contact guidelines from reputable medical and football organizations, have daily practices filled with high velocity, maximum contact drills in an effort to produce the big hit and prove their team is the toughest. Those who are uneducated on the safety measures and technical fundamentals of the modern game and are teaching kids how they were taught back in the day. Those who design gimmick plays to trick kids on the other rather than teach their kids to execute fundamental concepts that will be important throughout their football career. Those who incite conflict with other parents and game officials. While not true for everyone, the youth football scene is littered with these issues, which I believe makes high school coaches apprehensive to engage. This is unfortunate, but we should realize that the youth football community must ascend to a middle ground (education, motivation, & decorum) in building these bridges.

Certainly, there are many communities in which the high school coach has involvement, or at least influence, with the youth program. They have developed a connection and a culture from top to bottom. The coaching panelists at the summit admitted this wasn’t initially the case in their town. They discussed the reasons why they felt a need to be more involved and the process, many still ongoing, it has taken to get there. Even if they don’t always agree with the youth organizers/boards, there is at least a line of communication and general support from top to bottom. These are the models for what I believe will produce the best youth football experiences and address the bulleted issues listed above— specifically declining participation.

I applaud the IHSAA for being a leader in advancing this conversation at statewide level. I walked away from the summit convicted of this: the high school coach, backed by his state athletic and coaches’ associations, has the greatest opportunity to make impactful recommendations and amendments the youth football experience. I encourage high school coaches to take a greater interest in their local youth programs and for youth organizers to be more diligent in soliciting input and being receptive to their recommendations.