USA Football is piloting the game's first long-term development program in the hopes of growing the game and catching up to other sports around the world.
The sport's governing body launched its Football Development Model on Thursday, announcing six youth leagues will team up with USA Football in the hopes of attracting more young players and improving skills.
The leagues will experiment with new ways to coach fundamentals in practice, aiming to hone skills while cutting down on full-speed contact that ends with players hitting the ground. The FDM also will encourage leagues to experiment with different ways to play the game, including flag football, padded flag football and modified games with smaller fields and fewer than 11 players on each team.
''We're looking at football in a fresh, new way,'' USA Football CEO Scott Hallenbeck said in an interview with The Associated Press. ''These leagues around the country are willing to take on this challenge with us to change the narrative and culture of the game, which is easy to say and hard to do.
''Hopefully, the Football Development Model will reimagine the sport to help parents gain confidence and trust and to address some of the challenges in the sport.''
Likely due to the fear of concussions, participation in youth tackle football has declined sharply this decade.
There were more than one million children ages 6 to 12 playing tackle football each year from 2011 to 2013 and participated dipped to 839,282 in 2018 according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. Participation in flag football for the same age group, according to the SFIA, has increased from fewer than 700,000 in 2014 to nearly one million in 2018.
''My son started playing tackle football at 7 and I still wonder if that was the best thing to do,'' Hallenbeck said. ''When you look at it from a skill-development lens, why can't flag football be like T-ball is for baseball? In flag, you can teach how to pass, catch, backpedal and get into a breakdown position defensively. You can learn how to play football without contact.''
The program was crafted in part by a council of people with expertise in football, medical and child development along with long-term athlete development.
''The FDM is a progressive approach for the development and safety of our players as they are learning the game,'' said Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens, a member of the council. ''This is 21st-century football that embraces the value of the team experience, fundamental skill instruction and contact reduction in an effort to teach the sport in a smarter and safer fashion.''
The Niagara Erie Youth Sports Association in New York, the Miami Xtreme Youth Football League, Texas' Frisco Football League, the Washington-Greene Youth Football League in Pennsylvania, the Iowa Development League in Des Moines and Utah's Ute Football Conference will pilot USA Football's new program.
''The FDM is an athlete's roadmap - at any age - to enjoy the fun of football by participating in sport activities that are developmentally appropriate physically, mentally and socially,'' said NCAA Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brian Hainline, chairman of the FDM council. ''Part of the model's forward thinking is that you learn to become an athlete before you learn to become a player. When sports programs adopt the FDM, athletes will perform better, play longer and gain a lifelong path to athleticism, health and wellness through football.''
USA Football, a USOC member, studied development programs such as one USA Hockey has had for many years and others operating overseas.
''We're just catching up,'' Hallenbeck said. ''We feel very strongly that this is what the sport has been screaming for something like this and I wish I thought of it 10 years ago because it's a smart way to take another look at our great game.''
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