Should Parents Let Their Child Play Football? Weighing the Pros and Cons

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When it comes to kids playing football, almost everyone has an opinion. Some parents want their kids to take the field like they did in their youth. Others believe football – particularly tackle football – should be reserved for older teens and adults. With the wide variety of opinions, many parents turn to sports medicine specialists at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) for advice.

Sports medicine specialist Naomi Brown, MD, FAAP, CAQSM, recently shared some of the most common questions she receives and the advice she offers to families.

When is football safe for kids to play?

Deciding whether to allow your child to play football is a personal family decision. Your family needs to weigh whether the risks of potential injuries outweigh the benefits of playing an organized sport.

We encourage families to talk to trusted experts, such as your pediatrician or a sports medicine specialist, as you navigate this topic. It’s important for both parents and children to understand the risks for injury, what activities put youth more at risk, and how kids can minimize their risks.

Allowing your child to be part of the discussion with a medical professional – to hear your concerns about injuries and how it could impact them long term – can help your child better understand the decision you make.

What age should a child start tackle football?

Flag football or non-contact football is a great way to introduce young athletes to the sport safely, while developing the same basic skills they’ll use later. Children can start throwing a football and participating in non-contact sports as early as age 4. At this age, they can start learning basic motor skills like running, catching and throwing; as well as start to develop hand-eye coordination and the value of teamwork.

Timing the transition from flag football to tackle football depends on several factors, including the player’s physical characteristics, growth status, maturity level and desire to participate in contact or collision sports.

There is no universal consensus on when it’s best to start tackle football. Other sports have weighed the risk of increased contact and collision with the transition to adult rules in the sport. Two examples:

  • USA Hockey's American Development Model does not permit “body checking” for players younger than age 13
  • USA Soccer does not permit “ball heading” for players younger than age 11

For many youth athletes, freshman year of high school (typically age 14-15) may be a reasonable time to make the transition to tackle football. Before switching to tackle football, players should introduce modified tackling shortly before high school. One example of this is USA Football's Football Development Model, which considers the young athlete’s development and is based on their skill progression and mastery, before full contact tackling.

What are the risks to youth who play football?

Many football-related injuries are musculoskeletal, and involve the lower legs, ankles and feet. Injuries typically include sprains, strains, fractures and contusions (bruises). In youth who are still growing, an injury to the growth plate may also occur and may be serious. While many growth-plate injuries can be treated with physical therapy and rehabilitation, some fractures involving the growth plate also require surgery.

In high school sports, the chances of serious ligament injuries – such as ACL tears – rise. Injuries to the shoulder – such as an acromioclavicular sprain (the joint where the shoulder blade meets the collarbone) or shoulder dislocation – are also more common in tackle football.

What are the benefits of playing team sports like football?

Sports that involve strategic skills support athletes’ mental and physical development.

  • Football engages a player’s gross and fine motor skills, improves hand-eye coordination, and has positive effects on bone strength.
  • Physical training for football helps to build muscle strength and endurance.
  • Learning plays, reading the movement of the game, and watching game film develops new skills.
  • Team sports teach youth to work together, encourage others, be a leader, be responsible, and how to socialize and communicate effectively with others.
  • Football can help youth develop mental toughness, allowing kids to build resilience and learn how to persevere through adversity.

What should families look for when choosing a coach, team or football program to keep their kids as safe as possible?

  • Coaches that prioritize player development over winning.
  • Team has access to (and uses!) well-fitting protective equipment.
  • Coaches follow rules for youth sports and are not subjecting young athletes to excessive practices.
  • Coaches encourage youth to play multiple sports (rather than specializing at an early age) to develop well-rounded skills and protect them from injury.
  • Coaches have undergone concussion training and athletes do not continue to play after a head injury if there is ANY concern for a possible concussion. Free online training, such as U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention's HEADS UP to Youth Sports online training is a great resource.
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