For years, sports such as baseball, hockey and tennis have created variations of their sports for younger children, generally by shortening the field, rink or court to increase kids’ enjoyment of the game. Now, USA Football is adopting a pilot program it hopes will change the game on the gridiron as well.
The national governing body has unveiled Rookie Tackle, a pilot program that will be tested in 11 leagues around the country this year, including a Pop Warner league in Austin, Texas, and a league for girls in Smyrna, Georgia. In Rookie Tackle, between six and eight players will be on the field, down from 11. The field will be 40 yards by 35 yards, less than half the size of the regular field. Players will learn multiple positions and special teams will be eliminated. And athletes will begin plays in a two-point stance, a standing position considered safer than the typical three-point stance in which one hand is touching the ground when play begins.
Greater Involvement. Nick Inzerello, USA Football’s senior director of football development, said the changes are designed to teach younger athletes the fundamentals of tackling but also to get them more involved during practices and games. “We want to quicken the tempo of the game,” he said. “We want them running more and we want them more physically active.”
Inzerello compared the approach to bridge disciplines in youth baseball, where players start with tee ball, advance to coach pitching and move on to player pitching as they develop their skills. In football, the traditional disciplines have been flag football with no contact and 11-player tackle football. If the pilot is successful, Rookie Tackle could live between those two, with leagues determining the appropriate age bracket.
The smaller field could also allow some programs to offer twice as many games, since two games could be played at once on a standard football field. In Philadelphia, Inzerello said, the city’s school district has embraced the concept as a way to maximize its resources and will be one of the initial 11 participants.
Safety Concerns. Rookie Tackle also appears to be another effort by USA Football to address parent concerns about safety issues in football. In 2012, the NGB launched a pilot called Heads Up Football that provided training for coaches on safety topics including injury prevention and recognition. Today, the initiative is embraced by more than 7,000 youth and high school teams. The ultimate goal of the Rookie Tackle program is to educate coaches and parents so that kids can enjoy the game even more. “If they’re having fun, the chances of them coming back to the sport are greater,” Inzerello said.