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The goal: make youth football more fun

By Ross AtkinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 23, 2002

As the senior director of youth football development for the National Football League, Scott Lancaster is well positioned to be a mover and shaker in the reform of youth sports – and he isn't about to squander the opportunity.

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He uses his platform to talk and write about a "Fair Play" philosophy that applies to the various youth programs he runs. These include a national Punt, Pass, and Kick skills competition, summer development camps, no-contact flag football leagues, and a junior development program for 12- to 14-year-old boys.

The basic ideas behind Fair Play are to make the teaching and learning of sports skills fun and satisfying, to limit standing around, and to keep the focus where it belongs – on the children, not the adults.

The centerpiece of this philosophy is the NFL's Junior Player Development program, which attempts to emphasize all the special moments in playing rather than game scores. Although very structured, it leaves latitude for player input in creating new drills and free-play periods.

"Free play has become a lost art," Mr. Lancaster contends, and introducing even a little of it into today's adult-run youth sports leagues is a plus.

Recognizing the appeal of this sandlot approach, Lancaster decided to give the players "ownership" of the NFL's inaugural flag football national championship in 2000. After congratulating and thanking the coaches for getting their teams to Disney World in Orlando, Fla., he announced that the championship games would belong to the players. They would coach themselves and get to show all they'd learned, while the coaches would watch from the stands and be allowed only pre-game and halftime talks to their squads.

"The kids applauded; they were psyched," Lancaster recalls. "The coaches were enraged, and the parents didn't know what to think. We went ahead with it, and we had [coaches] who tried to cheat and get around it. But we got it done, and we were very pleased. It went well."

The no-coaching rule also applied at the second national championship.

Lancaster says that holding national championship games runs contrary to his basic philosophy, yet he believes that, if handled well, they can help promote football and show it in a positive light.

But to do so requires more than tweaking, since youth football faces serious challenges from soccer, parental reluctance, and its habit of pigeonholing players – assigning them positions at an early age. "If you're a big kid," Lancaster says, "you play the line and never even touch the ball."

To come up with what it hopes will serve as a model for all sports, the NFL surveyed thousands of kids, parents, and coaches. In particular, the league wanted to find out why 75 percent of children quit organized sports by age 12.

The main reason: They weren't having fun. Other factors were overcrowded schedules, a perceived lack of learning and skill improvement, overzealous parents, too much emphasis on winning, and the excessive attention paid to star athletes to the exclusion of average athletes and bench warmers.

To address these issues, the NFL created the Junior Player Development program in consultation with top coaches, including former Super Bowl coach Bill Walsh. One of its fundamentals is that kids are allowed to play every position.

The program, which began in 1998, has 10,000 participants nationwide, compared with 240,000 who play little-league-style Pop Warner football, which dates to 1929. School systems in Houston and New Orleans have adopted the NFL approach for their middle-school programs, and Chicago, San Francisco, and Oakland, Calif., have expressed interest in adopting the program and the Fair Play philosophy, which Lancaster, the father of three, outlines in a new book ("Fair Play: Making Organized Sports a Great Experience for Your Kids," Prentice Hall Press, $14.95).