The United States has seen a decline in youth and high school football participation in recent years. Many safety concerns have risen, especially when it comes to concussions and head injuries. This concern has led parents, school officials, and other football stakeholders to take a careful look at when it is safe to have a young athlete begin playing tackle football. According to USA Football, approximately 9,300 youth tackle football organizations in the U.S. Within these are approximately 2.5 million young athletes who play and 400,000 adults who coach.
In a recent study by the Seattle Children’s Research Institute, 63 percent of parents support age restrictions for tackle football and are in favor of establishing a starting age. There is no doubt playing youth sports has many physical and mental benefits. And in general, the risk of concussions is relatively low, with about 2 million youth athletes suffering concussions a year. Many of these athletes recover without lasting issues if they adhere to a proper concussion protocol and rehab. The concern at hand is repeated head injuries are more likely to have long-term challenges with academics, cognitive skills, and behavioral health.
Levels of Contact In Sports
Some youth sports have set ages for when certain levels of contact can begin: ice hockey discourages body checking for players under 13, and soccer recommends against heading for players under 11. As for tackle football, there are no universal guidelines as to what age is appropriate to initiate this level of play
And the answer is not quite as simple as establishing a legal driving or drinking age. Young men and women do not all develop at the same rate. In late elementary and junior high, athletes and young adults, in general, can vastly differ in size, strength, and overall development. There cannot necessarily be a set age, but more a set standard in which parents and trained coaches must test and recognize.
While many communities and recreational sports leagues may start kids as young as five with flag football, there are many factors and differences between flag and tackle football. Flag football is a great way to introduce young athletes to football to learn the rules, learn to play as a team, and see if there is any interest or talent in the sport. The transition from flag football player to tackle football takes greater consideration. And in the U.S. many leading organizations are not clear on when is the right age. The American Academy of Pediatrics says, “Delaying the age at which tackling is introduced to the game would likely decrease the risk of these injuries.”
Tackle Football Age Suggestions
A couple of other organizations, including The Aspen Institute and The Concussion Legacy Foundation, have come out with an age suggestion of 14. Many physicians and exercise science experts feel that young athletes have the better-developed torso and neck strength by this age, which can help reduce concussions or concussion severity. Often young athletes before junior high age have relatively larger heads and weaker neck and shoulder muscles, which can result in a “bobblehead effect” with blows to the head, creating more shaking and damage to the brain.
USA Football has a chart available to help coaches with appropriate levels of contact when it comes to practice and drills. USA Football states, “The purpose of these guidelines is to provide youth football organizations (players age 6 to 14) with recommendations to establish consistent methods designed to limit the chance for injury during structured practice sessions. This document provides youth football commissioners and coaches with heat acclimatization guidelines, clear definitions of contact, and recommendations on the number of practices per week and time limits on player-to-player full contact.”
Equipment and Coaching Experience
Other key considerations in making a decision include equipment and coaching expertise. Parents want to ensure their young football players have the appropriate equipment which has a sturdy construction, fits properly, and is routinely inspected for damage or other issues. And parents may want to take into consideration the level of expertise a coach may have. In many community leagues, coaches do not have specific training or educational background in exercise science. However, you want a coach who demonstrates a strong understanding of anatomy and proper strength and conditioning drills to ensure that players are in good shape. The coach should also recognize weaknesses or issues and call this to attention before a player could possibly be injured.
While there is no consensus as to an appropriate age at which an athlete should begin tackle football, many organizations recommend starting tackle football around age 14, or freshman year of high school. This is when many young men and women start to grow into more adult bodies and develop musculature and strength to support the neck and head better. This also gives athletes many years to perfect several skills through flag football, while allowing time for strength and conditioning. And tackling should be initiated by USA Football recommendations to ensure safety for players. It may not be an easy conversation or decision for a parent and their athlete, but there must be a certain level of physical development, along with proper protective gear and coaching, as to when an athlete is ready to go head to head on the field.