This post was written by AthleteFIT guest contributor Kate Voss.
Ruthlessly pushing athletes to exhaustion and placing them in direct line of possible injury may seem acceptable within professional sports. However, when it comes to 8 and 9-year-olds, you would expect coaches to approach young players in a more relaxed manner, in order to safeguard their underdeveloped body and mentality.
That is definitely not the case for coaches in the Texas Youth Football Association, which is documented by the new series, Friday Night Tykes. If you haven’t seen the show yet, (which broadcasts on the Esquire Network, available on Direct TV and some cable packages), be warned that you should watch with caution.
The new show, which premiered on Jan. 14, is a shocking and often disturbing insight into the extreme world of youth football training. Coaches are seen encouraging their players to “rip their freakin’ head off, and let them bleed,” and even advising players with comments such as, “I want you to stick it in his helmet — I don’t care if he don’t get up.”
In the first episode, a player is forced to spend the entire practice running laps in 104 degree heat because he missed four weeks of training while visiting his grandmother. These coaches and parents aren’t just competitive, they want their teams to win no matter the emotional and physical cost of the young players.
USA Football spokesman Steve Alic released a statement in response to the show, stated that “The language and scenes in Esquire Network’s ‘Friday Night Tykes’ are in sharp contrast to USA Football’s core beliefs and what is taking place on the majority of youth football fields across the country.” He also explained that there is already an understanding among leagues that more needs to be done to make the sport safer and that “together with support of experts in medicine, child advocacy and multiple levels of the sport, we work with youth leagues to adopt these standards that bring significant change in how coaches are prepared, players are taught, parents are informed and safety is addressed.”
While this is a good first step in theory, outraged parents and viewers will likely need more assurance their young players are protected.
What’s wrong with the youth football culture?
The type of coaching shown in Friday Night Tykes undoubtedly leads to some alarming consequences. Encouraging players to disregard their pain and fatigue not only causes injury, but also provides a warped sense of masculinity. These young, male players are taught to believe that they need to push through all pain in order to achieve their goals. At one point in the show, a coach yells, “Emotion is a female trait. This is a man’s sport!”
This type of coaching also promotes a “win at all costs” type of attitude, which is directly responsible for many injuries, including concussions. Recent headlines have brought to light that concussions in the sport of football are an all-too common occurrence, and a huge risk for underdeveloped brains. Even the NFL seems concerned with the show, stating that, “The trailer is definitely troubling to watch” and that the league featured on the show is not part of its Heads Up Football Program, which seeks to help make the sport of football safer for players.
What needs to change?
As parents, and especially as coaches and trainers of youth athletes, we must stop pushing young athletes too hard and aim to protect them. Most importantly coaches should define the difference between teaching healthy competition, not violence.
If the parent or coach is more invested in winning the game than the athletes are, something is wrong. Youth football should be played by athletes who are there because they love the sport, not because they were pushed into it. In order to bring youth football back to its roots — having fun while learning the benefits competition, discipline and hard work- parents and coaches need to stop pushing their children into sports purely for the sole purpose of winning the game.
It is important as a parent and coach to maintain communication with how the players are feeling. If the player feels they are being pushed too far, they should take a break. Also, between seasons, they should have a period of rest. According to The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM), children should take 2 to 3 months away from a specific sport every year and are encouraged to take at least 1 day off each week from organized activity.
Not only are these young players at risk for emotional burnout, they may also develop lifelong injuries. They should not be taught how to rip their opponents apart but rather, coaches need to focus on the right way to coach our children and players: by empowering, equipping and emotionally engaging them. We need to develop confidence in the young players so that they take risks, are not afraid of failure, and are increasingly motivated. For too many leagues, too much emphasis has been placed on the score of the game and who wins, when the focus needs to be put back on what the child actually learns through playing a sport: leadership, teamwork, dedication, healthy exercise and most importantly, how to have fun.