The goal: make youth football more fun

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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).

Some argue that kids find drills boring and don't want to spend time learning fundamentals. "The opposite is true," says Lancaster, who drew inspiration from children at skateboard parks. "They spend years working on one trick. They make it fun by using creative ideas of their own."

The Junior Player Development program has no games, touchdowns, or scoreboards, but only a series of fun, fast-paced, 90-minute practices aimed at teaching football fundamentals.

This helps youngsters who may be uneasy with the contact aspects of football and helps parents feel more comfortable about letting their sons play. (The NFL considers 12 the appropriate age to start tackle football. Boys and girls from 6 to 14, however, can play no-contact flag ball.)

To keep the players motivated, they are awarded points for the proper execution of skills individually and as groups during practice drills.

To make this work, the coaches need to use the NFL's standardized teaching and practice plans. Some coaches might not like adhering to a curriculum, preferring to put their own stamp on things, but there are advantages to this approach.

The Junior Development program emphasizes that coaches are teachers, imparters of knowledge and facilitators, and not necessarily strategic masterminds.

In fact, Lancaster thinks youth sports would be better served by calling head coaches coordinators. "This would eliminate a lot of the issues of coaches thinking they are the focus," he observes.

The other major advantage to following the NFL outline is that it unburdens time-strapped volunteer coaches, not all of whom are well-versed in the game, from needing to devise practice plans.

More adults can be called upon to teach a specific skill – not just to those on one team, but to players in whole leagues.

"What this does," Lancaster says, "is provide a community-type environment. Now you get to interact with other coaches and kids. That way, when games are played, the parents are cheering for every kid on the field."

Consistent with this approach, the NFL has decided to tap what Lancaster calls the largest unused resource in youth sports: women. From watching them shuttling their kids to and from practices, observing from the sidelines, and making snacks for the players, he was convinced women wanted to be involved.

"There's a better way to use these very capable people," Lancaster concluded. So, at a PTA meeting in Somers, N.Y., last year, he recruited a group of mothers for the Junior Player Development program (see related story above).

"The boys walked away [from a three-week camp coached by women] learning a lot about the game," he says. "The women were more nurturing [than men], which is very important in football, because you're a team, a family, and women are just as concerned about the least talented player as the most talented."

Lancaster hopes the program can become a template for youth sports organizations, but he's careful not to downplay the contributions others are making.

"They have very good ideas, too, and are working very hard on making changes as well," he states. "The way we see it, we're all in this together."

Moms go from cheering to coaching football practices

Helen McNeece-Lewis isn't anyone's idea of a football coach. She isn't macho or obsessed with X's and O's. She isn't even a hard-core fan – she's always thought of attending football games as a "social thing."

Yet there she was in August, on the football field, teaching the rudiments of the sport to 12 to 14-year-olds in Somers, N.Y.

Thirteen other women, some of whom didn't know the names of the various player positions when they began, joined her at the invitation of the National Football League. After receiving months of training, they coached in the NFL's Junior Player Development program, while curious dads sat watching from the sidelines.

The women were persuaded to take the unconventional role by Scott Lancaster of the NFL (see main story). Mr. Lancaster believes women are a huge untapped resource for youth football. They start with a clean slate, without preconceptions.

"When a person doesn't know anything, you can teach them your way, so a lack of knowledge is almost helpful," says Janet Walker, an avid football fan who agreed to serve as the program's local site manager.

The NFL benefits from getting mothers involved, not only for the fresh perspective they bring, but because their participation greatly expands the pool of available volunteer coaches and lessens the resistance some mothers have felt toward letting their sons play football.

Mothers also have some other advantages as coaches – they may be kinder and more understanding. At the experimental football trainingcamp, this showed up in the experience of a youngster who'd never played football and wasn't particularly athletic. The "maternal nurturing" of the mother coaches, Ms. Walker believes, helped him weather the early storms.

Instead of being shunned or ignored when the boy struggled through his first, tear-stained day, Walker told the other players he deserved credit for his courage and heart. "We kind of built on that, and the other kids took him under their wing," she explains.

Now he appears to have a bright future in the sport. "If we'd said, 'Go sit down,' he might not have come back," Walker says. "Maybe these little triumphs matter more to [women]. I don't know, but his father was very pleased with us."

Although the women bring a welcome sensitivity to coaching football, they must be careful to avoid softness.

"There's definitely a fine line," Walker acknowledges. "For women who are used to being in the stands, it's a lot different on the field when there's a collision. I could see some of the women tense up, like, you don't have to hit that hard. We talked about it, and they quickly got over it, but it was definitely a reality check."

At first the coaches were restrained, keeping their on-field volume low, but there, too, they adjusted. Their voices grew louder as they went along. They also dealt with the "female attitude" that "wants things to be perfect," says Ms. McNeece-Lewis. "We kept thinking we'd mess up something, but our [male] coaches told us that happens all the time with them."

The NFL's Lancaster was pleased with the experiment. "The women really rose above our expectations," he says.

It's too early to know if any of the Somers coaches will return to conduct another Junior Player Development program. "I'd love to; I just have to think about the time commitment," Walker says. But they are thinking of sharing what they've learned with mothers in other towns, who in turn would conduct programs in their communities.

McNeece-Lewis thinks the next challenge for the national program will be to find a way to mix men and women together as coaches. Each gender would need to consider the other an equal partner. The result could be an environment in which adults are more co-teachers than competitors.

Because the coaches teach all the players in the program, they become cheerleaders for each child as he goes on to school and to various league teams. "That way," Lancaster says, "when the serious games begin, more adults will rejoice in each child's progress."

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