Game Change: USA Football rolling out new modified tackle game

youth football

By Amanda N. Wegner

Youth sports organizations are looking at a myriad of ways to make their respective sports safer. This includes advances in protective equipment, rule changes, age-adjusted game modifications and progressions, additional training for coaches and players alike, and more. And for USA Football, the national governing body for amateur football, it also includes a new pilot program that significantly modifies how youth football is played.

“These modifications are not to take away from 11-person full-field tackle football,” says Tom Yelich, spokesperson for USA Football. “Like game modifications and levels of progression similar to other sports—ice hockey, tennis, baseball and soccer—we recognized it was time to provide football with another option for athlete development and fundamental skill progression while maximizing the youth tackle player experience. The game model, which many leagues around the country are doing versions of, is being developed to offer additional entry points to the game and to serve as a bridge between flag football and 11-person full-field tackle.”

According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, about 1.23 million children ages 6 to 12 played tackle football in 2015. However, participation in tackle football by boys in that age group has fallen by nearly 20 percent since 2009. On the other hand, participation among children ages 6 to 12 in noncontact flag football has grown 8.7 percent in the last year and is played by about 1.1 million children.

Set to launch this fall to select youth leagues, the “Modified Tackle Game” has been in development since 2015; two Ohio teams served as test runs for the new game model in 2016. With both test runs receiving overwhelming support from players, parents and coaches, USA Football has chosen to roll out a formal pilot to examine the new game model on a larger scale.

INITIAL GAME MODIFICATION CONCEPTS THAT WILL BE TESTED AND OBSERVED IN 2017 INCLUDE:

  • The typical 100-yard field will now be split into two smaller fields measuring 40 yards by 35 yards, allowing two games to be played on one traditional-sized football field simultaneously.
  • The number of players allowed on the field, and subsequently, the size of teams, will be reduced. The traditional format calls for 11 players on the field per team; in the trial, 6 to 9 players on the field will be tested. Coaches must ensure players of equal size are matched up against each other.
  • Every player must start in a two-point stance except for the center, who must be left uncovered.
  • No special teams; players must rotate positions.
  • No blitzing. The goal is to focus on and teach basic skill development.
  • All possessions will start with the ball on the 40-yard line, regardless of whether there was an interception, fumble, touchdown or turnover on downs.
  • Coaches are allowed on the field and in the huddle.
  • The clock will continue to run.

“The smaller field and limited player numbers are designed to fit the right age, right stage of the players to foster long-term athlete development, increasing physical activity and skill development,” says Yelich. “Through our initial analysis, we found young athletes were more engaged, ran more and felt more involved in the game, which is played in a more controlled environment where coaches are allowed on the playing field.”

Participating leagues will be notified this spring. No formal recommendations will be made in 2017.

“USA Football will obtain feedback from players, parents, coaches and administrators along with the collection of other qualitative research and additional data points to determine how to best move forward in 2018 and beyond,” says Yelich.

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