Every weekend, there are various iterations of youth sport that take place on suburban grounds across the world. Humble patches of grass filled with tiny athletes coached by dedicated and skilled volunteers who aim to instil the love of the game to their young charges. Sport teaches; it can teach you good things and it also teach you bad things, and the lessons learned at youth sport can help shape your child’s life for many years to come.
Now I am in Texas, youth sport means football every weekend at this time of year. The grass is manicured, the lines are painted in a gleaming white and solemn coaches patrol the side of the field in their visors and sunglasses with their playbooks. After a long career in professional sport, I had to do a double take the first game I visited. They say everything is bigger in Texas, and that certainly is true for their youth football programs.
Regardless of how young or small the players are, youth football is taken extremely seriously in my new adopted home. Tiny quarterbacks memorise plays and try to recreate a miniature game of physical chess, with little helmeted players acting as knights, bishops and kings, trying to gain any territory advantage on the field. The volunteer coaches take their job seriously and have the capacity to build a lifelong love for their chosen sport in their children, or sadly, if they get it wrong, a vehement hatred.
Youth sport represents a critical juncture in any young person’s life. If you have a positive experience, you open a gateway to participation for the rest of their life. If not as a player, then at least as an active fan or volunteer. Conversely, any negative experience a child has in youth sport, can blacken that specific sport in their life forever, creating irreparable damage that can resonate through generations. I witnessed this at first hand as a boy, seeing young people who hated the physical element of rugby, and feeling coerced into the sport against their will.
I am the proud father of a young boy who I hope will one day decide on his own to play football. I will give him every opportunity to make up his own mind, as critically, this the key to longevity in any sport. It must be his choice, not mine. If Nico does decide to play football, as a parent, my concern will be two-fold, one is he having a positive experience, and two is it a safe experience.
As part of my sporting immersion into my adopted country, I have watched a programme called ‘Friday Night Tyles’ shown online on the Esquire Network. I warn you, it does not make easy watching. It highlights the danger of volunteer coaches treating a game with small children as their own personal version of the Rose Bowl.
A win-at-all costs strategy pervades in a series that is designed to show a warts and all version of youth football in Texas. In one particularly nauseating episode, a child lays prone on the ground after taking a viciously hard helmet-to-helmet shot. The opposing coach remains sanguine, “he got a mean hit, but that’s football”.
If youth football is the gateway to build a lifelong relationship the game, not only for children, but also their parents, we must tread carefully. If my son decides to play football, he will be encouraged to play to win, but more importantly, I want him to smile at the end of every game. Enjoyment comes from employing proper tackle technique, designed to maintain a hard and fast game, but crucially ensuring that both tackler and tackled player finish the game hungry to play more.
The journey for my son and I in football may begin soon, and I cannot wait to introduce him to see sport. However, long before he wears the heavy padding and helmet, he will be schooled exactly how to make a safe and hard tackle to ensure that he gets the most out of the game for many years to come, as a father and a coach, that is my responsibility.
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