By Rick Horrow and Karla Swatek
August 16, 2013
Across the U.S., NFL teams are breaking training camp and paring their rosters. College and high school players are sweating it out in two-a-days. And on youth football fields in communities everywhere, the smallest football players are emulating their bigger brethren, by preparing their bodies and their minds for the season ahead.
This year, however, they’re doing it under a newly updated set of safety standards, and under a newly-formed partnership with the NFL.
Two weeks ago, as the pros met for their annual preseason Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio, leadership from the NFL, Pop Warner, and USA Football convened at the Cleveland Browns training facility for a partnership announcement about Heads Up Football, a new, comprehensive youth football membership program developed by USA Football and supported by the NFL to further advance youth player safety.
More than 2,765 youth football leagues across the United States representing more than 575,535 players and 83,000 coaches have committed to the health and safety of their young players by adopting Heads Up Football in 2013. USA Football, the sport’s national governing body, is the official youth football development partner of the NFL.
Pop Warner Little Scholars, Inc., the nation’s largest and oldest youth football, cheer and dance organization is the only youth sports organization that emphasizes academics as a prerequisite for participation. Currently over 400,000 children participate in Pop Warner organizations, including 275,000 football players, in 43 states, Scotland, Germany, Russia, Japan, and Mexico.
Under the new partnership, the NFL, Pop Warner, and USA Football will bring Heads Up Football training to over 20,000 Pop Warner coaches across the nation. Pop Warner’s 1,000 youth football leagues will join more than 2,700 other youth football organizations across all 50 states and Washington, D.C. in the Heads Up Football program to ensure a better, safer game.
This partnership is part of Pop Warner’s continuing effort to provide its members with important education around concussion prevention and awareness. In 2010, Pop Warner became the first youth sports organization to institute a concussion rule that mandates the return to play decision be made by a qualified medical professional. In 2012, Pop Warner became the first to limit contact in practice and ban head-to-head contact.
In advance of the 2014 season, all Pop Warner head coaches and assistant coaches will be trained in Heads Up Football elements, which include:
- Heads Up Tackling - USA Football’s Heads Up Tackling technique, endorsed by medical and football experts, teaches players to keep their heads up and out of the line of contact.
- Coaching certification - All coaches within a youth program are trained to teach the game’s fundamentals by completing USA Football’s nationally accredited Level 1 Coaching Certification Course
- Concussion recognition and response - Coaches learn and are assessed on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concussion recognition and response through USA Football’s Level 1 Coaching Certification Course. Additionally, coaches, parents and players are taught concussion-related protocols that are reinforced throughout the season
- Player Safety Coach - Appointed by each participating Heads Up Football youth organization, this individual is trained by USA Football to implement Heads Up Football’s player safety protocols, including coaching certification, and conducts safety clinics for coaches, parents and players
- Equipment fitting - Coaches, parents and players are taught proper helmet and shoulder pad fitting
“Heads Up Football is an opportunity for youth leagues to make football better and safer for young players,” said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. “Through this partnership, Pop Warner is demonstrating its strong commitment to player safety and to strengthening youth football for years to come.”
The NFLPA estimates that 70% of all current NFL Players got their start in Pop Warner programs.
“Partnering with Heads Up Football is another step in our commitment to provide the safest playing environment for our young athletes,” added Jon Butler, Executive Director, Pop Warner Little Scholars. “Combined with the player safety rules we have already instituted, the Heads Up Football education will equip our coaches with the tools necessary to teach the game we all love the right way.”
While Pop Warner and USA Football focus intently on physical health and safety, they also focus on family health and wellness and behavior – establishing good patterns early for lifelong success, sound decision-making abilities and tactics, and the importance of academic rigor. For many of the children who participate, alumni and observers concur, the organizations play a key role in positively influencing individual development.
“The experience that kids have early in life shape them for who they are in the future,” emphasizes Dr. Richard Chaifetz, founder of ComPsych Corporation and an expert on behavioral issues. “We’ve seen what happens to athletes who have the wrong type of experiences and never learn the right way, and how difficult it is for them to fit in to the rules of society.
“If you can set those high standards early,” Chaifetz continues, “and you help kids understand why the standards exist, what the consequences are, and what they can achieve if they follow those standards and differentiate between good and not good behavior, everyone is better off for it.”