No rush to play tackle: More area programs sticking to flag football until middle school


Carpe Diem
Great read :

Eau Claire Memorial coach Mike Sinz remembers what it was like growing up hungry for football in Menomonie.
Sinz would go to games on Friday nights and dream about when it would be his turn to play varsity football for the then-Indians. During his early middle school days, he begged his parents to let him play tackle football at the YMCA. His parents said no. They were going to trust the system that Menomonie coach Joe LaBuda had in place.
So Sinz played flag football in fourth and fifth grade. In sixth and seventh, it was on to 7-on-7. Finally, in eighth grade, Sinz put on pads for the first time. By then, he was desperate to hit and tackle. And so were nearly all of his classmates. About 60 kids played eighth-grade football for Menomonie that year. The majority of those went on to play high school ball and were part of a state championship team in 1999.
“I’m so glad I waited (to play tackle football),” Sinz said. “Who knows, I might have been sick of football. My uncle (Jerry Sinz) at Edgar does the same thing as Menomonie. They’re two of the best programs in the entire state. I think that’s just the way to do it. I think they have the right philosophy on it. Wait until they’re older to get the kids in pads.”
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While participation in high school football across the nation continues to decrease, Menomonie hasn’t been affected. LaBuda has 143 players in his high school program this season. That’s a ridiculously high number for a Division 2 school. The school’s five state titles and current streak of 27 straight playoff appearances have something to do with that, but LaBuda thinks the way the youth football system is set up in Menomonie is a big reason why so many kids end up playing in high school.
Youth football in Menomonie has worked pretty much the same way since LaBuda took over as the varsity football head coach in 1989. From kindergarten through third grade, the children participate in Little Punters, in which they just learn the skills of the game. In fourth and fifth, they play flag football in a league in which the coaches are Menomonie high school players. In sixth and seventh, they play in a 7-on-7 league, which these days is coached mainly by LaBuda’s former players.
“My philosophy on not putting kids in pads until eighth grade is I think kids’ bodies aren’t ready to be hitting at a younger age,” LaBuda said. “I think a lot of kids get scared away early because of it. They’re not ready to get hit. There’s such a discrepancy in size between kids in fourth and fifth grade.”
When they finally put the pads on in eighth grade, there’s still a caveat. The eighth graders are divided up into two teams — a lightweight team and heavyweight team. LaBuda doesn’t want to discourage any smaller players — who may develop later and turn into quality high school players — by having them get overwhelmed by larger players.
“It’s amazing how many of the lightweights end up playing varsity football for us,” LaBuda said. “We tell eighth grade coaches that their main jobs are teaching safety, technique and making sure they become freshmen football players.”
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While LaBuda’s decades-old strategy may still be considered too conservative for some, several successful high-school programs in the area have started adopting similar approaches at the youth level.
Elk Mound, Stanley-Boyd and Eleva-Strum are all schools that have restructured their youth programs in the past five seasons in order to start tackle football in the seventh grade instead of fourth or fifth. Stanley-Boyd coach Jeff Koenig and Elk Mound’s Dave Lew both have seen their numbers increase at the high school level since the change. Eleva-Strum coach Chad Hanson made the change more recently and soon will find out the effects.
“What we’ve seen at Elk Mound in the past five years is our numbers steadily increasing,” Lew said. “Football is a sport of numbers, and we’re blessed right now. We have 66 kids in our high school program.”
As a first-year coach at Memorial, Sinz hasn’t had the opportunity yet to have much say in youth football in Eau Claire — which has a fifth- and sixth-grade tackle league through the YMCA — but he plans to let it be known that he would prefer that kids start playing tackle football later in middle school. Starting at a really young age would be particularly detrimental, in his opinion.
“When you have a fourth-grader running down on a kickoff against another fourth grader, and they’re smashing heads, I don’t see any positives that can come out of that,” Sinz said. “Their brains are still developing.”
Those head-to-head collisions that lead to concussions are generally accepted as the No. 1 reason why youth tackle football participation has decreased in recent years. But that’s only part of the reason many schools are taking it upon themselves to start football later.
LaBuda’s assertion about size difference at younger ages is a big factor. The thought is that because children develop at different rates, there’s often a bigger gap between the large and small kids when they are young. Not only does that lead to an increased chance of injury, but the smaller kids simply can’t compete with the bigger kids from a physical standpoint. They become intimidated and aren’t successful, so they quit football before they have a chance to mature.
“They might be a late maturer or they just have a bad experience as a fifth-grader and never come back to the sport,” Koenig said. “We want kids to have a little better reasoning skills and be a little older when they make that decision. If they don’t want to play, that’s fine, but we want to make sure they’re not walking away before they give it a chance.”
And it’s not just the late bloomers that are hampered by starting tackle football early. There are lasting effects for kids that are bigger and stronger than everyone else in the fifth grade but don’t have that same advantage in high school.
“You also have some of the kids that develop earlier who might develop a fake sense of security, which may lead to a lack of effort when they get older,” Sinz said. “I’ve seen that happen in the past.”
The different maturity rates also come in to play when it comes time to picking a position. That’s when the early developers sometimes miss out on the whole football experience.
“When you have a big kid at that age, he has to be a lineman his whole life,” Lew said. “He never gets a chance to run, catch and throw. He could end up being a really good skill player one day, but we lost him because he was pigeonholed at a young age being a lineman.”
Another argument for starting tackle football later is that children won’t get burnt out. If they start in fourth grade, they’ve been hitting and tackling each other for five years already by the time they get into high school, and some might not feel like doing it anymore.
The bottom line for most coaches, though, is safety. Eleva-Strum often needed fifth-graders to play on the sixth-grade team in the YMCA league, which is a big reason why Hanson has started having those age groups play flag football instead.
“It wasn’t really a winning and losing thing, it was ‘Do the kids feel safe on the field?’ ” Hanson said. “When you’re playing fifth-graders, no matter how good they may be, when they’re playing against sixth-graders they’re not going to feel as safe on the field.”
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Hanson does have one concern about making the switch to starting tackle football in seventh grade. That’s the tackling itself. Will the kids be good enough at that by the time they reach high school?
“You’re not tackling at that youth football level now, so when you get to middle school, you’re learning tackling from the very beginning,” Hanson said. “Like anything in sports, the more you practice, the better you are at it. That’ll be the thing that is my biggest concern is are the kids coming in and able to pick that up as fast as they need to?”
At Eau Claire Regis, coach Bryant Brenner has built an impressive program known for its physical play. And the players in the Ramblers system start playing tackle football at the YMCA in the fifth grade. But Brenner doesn’t think that starting tackling early has much to do with that success.
“I don’t think playing tackle football in fifth and sixth grade is a necessity,” Brenner said. “It is what we do, but I think we could live with it or live without it. I don’t think playing in fifth grade is as big a deal as people make it. I think the key is having good youth coaches that make sure kids have a good experience and, in turn, come out the next year.”
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One of the common sentiments among the coaches in the area is that how the kids are coached at the youth level is just as important — probably more so — as when they start tackling.
Lew, Koenig and Hanson are all coaches that started their own youth league so that they could have more of a say in how the kids are taught. Brenner makes sure the youth coaches do things the same as the high school level. And nearly every youth football coach in Menomonie was trained directly by LaBuda.
“I think sometimes when you get youth football leagues that are coached by parents, they’re unfortunately sometimes coached by overzealous parents who are concerned with winning and losing, not necessarily about technique and teaching safety,” LaBuda said.
Menomonie’s eighth-grade teams rarely have a winning season. Brenner said most of the youth teams, and even the junior varsity, aren’t typically very good in the Regis system. Yet those two varsity squads have been as good as anyone in recent years.
Both coaches are clearly doing a lot of things right at both the high school and youth level. But when it comes to getting athletes to play high school football, even Brenner admits that LaBuda’s method might be more effective.
“We don’t have the greatest numbers,” Brenner said. “Some days I wish I had more. Coach LaBuda gets a lot of kids out. It’s amazing how many kids he gets out and still asks a lot out of them in terms of commitment. Maybe there’s something to be said about starting (tackle football) late.”
I was raised in that type of program... pads were not until 8th grade. My coach went into the WI HOF with 200 wins doing it...we won a state title doing that along with 4 CWC titles in HS.

This BS of pee wee and pop warner in pads is burning kids out too early, by the time their sophomores they are done.