'Rookie Tackle' offers space between flag, tackle football

Justis column: When should youth players start tackling?

(The Gazette)
(The Gazette)

Editor’s note: Nancy Justis is a former competitive swimmer and college sports information director. She is a partner with Justis Creative Communications.

By Nancy Justis, correspondent

The debate surrounding youth football and at what age players should transition from flag to tackle continues.

The introduction of “heads up” tackling and some studies which show flag football isn’t necessarily safer than tackle adds to the controversy on both sides of the issue.

University of Iowa Health Care researchers found there was “no significant difference in the number of injuries and concussions sustained between the two leagues”, according to a release. Andrew Peterson, a specialist with the University’s Sports Medicine department and the study’s lead author, said that researchers “wanted to test the hypothesis that not allowing tackling might reduce the risk for injury in young athletes.

“Based upon our results, we cannot conclude that youth flag football is safer than youth tackle football.”

Now there is a new initiative introduced this season by USA Football called “Rookie Tackle.” Just as coach pitch baseball is a bridge between T-ball and player pitch, Rookie Tackle is meant to be a bridge between flag and full tackle football.

The small-sided format consists of six, seven or eight players per side on a 40-by-35-yard field. Two games can be played simultaneously on a regulation-sized field.

Other key aspects include:

l Players learn multiple positions and skills; position-specialization is not introduced.

l Smaller teams foster more playing time and opportunities for improvement and success.

l Players on both sides of the lines begin every play in a two-point stance.

l Removal of special teams encourages more plays from scrimmage and skill development.

l There is more focused, individualized coaching attention by virtue of a smaller roster.


According to USA Football, “Rookie Tackle is designed to be a fun, small-sided game that introduces tackle football to younger players. This is a player pathway concept in alignment with the U.S. Olympic Committee’s American Development Model (ADM) ... It compliments 11-player tackle ... It offers young athletes another entry point to tackle football, increases physical activity and social benefits and teaches the game’s fundamental skills in a forward-thinking way.”

This pilot season, which includes 11 leagues across the country (none in Iowa) will be evaluated throughout the season to see how the small-sided version may be improved and offered to youth leagues in 2018. The pilot leagues are independent of USA Football.

Doug Verge of Cedar Rapids’ Metro Youth Football Association program said he is familiar with Rookie Tackle.

“We do something very similar to Rookie Tackle, but without the full contact,” he said. “We do a third grade modified league where we pad the players with helmets and shoulder pads, but they still use flags and it is a flag game. We use the smaller field and have only eight players per team on the field.

“We have practices that focus on instruction in USA Football blocking techniques and USA Football tackling techniques. Drills that can include dummies and padded shields are used in practice to develop correct techniques.”

Verge uses this league to insure “our players have a full year of instruction in USA blocking and tackling before they enter our tackle program in fourth grade. We started the league this year and had over 130 players enter. We have had an overwhelmingly positive response from families.”

I would suggest these types of programs require a buy-in from recreation programs and other football leagues. Many teams are coached by volunteers — parents and others. They would need training in the proper techniques and parents would need to agree to such “interim” play.

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