For many parents, football safety and injury prevention are the most important factors to consider when it comes to kids playing football. They want to know things like: Is football safe to play? And, what’s the difference between tackle football and flag football?
This section takes a close look at the research, detailing how the game has evolved over time.
Football, as we know it, is changing. The way the game used to be taught and played is different from what’s happening today. Player protection and injury prevention are front and center, causing a major culture shift within the sport. Leagues across all levels are adopting new technology, regimes and regulations in an effort to reduce the risk of injury, as researchers continue to focus on the impact of sustained contact in youth sports.
To help parents better understand what’s changed, we’ve highlighted the key developments in football safety awareness.
Limiting Contact in Practice
In 2015, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) released a study that found concussions are more likely to occur during a tackle football practice rather than a game, with the reason being that there are simply more practices than games. So, to better protect players, leagues across the country began to decrease the amount of person-to-person contact that occurred during practice.
One study in particular followed a group of high school football players within the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association. After new rules and restrictions were passed defining and limiting the amount of contact allowed in practice, the rate of sports-related concussions decreased by 57 percent.
New Rule Changes
To eliminate potentially risky behavior that could lead to injuries, the NFL, the National Federation of High School Sports (NFHS) and athletic associations alike have changed several football rules, banning certain drills and enforcing new penalties.
For example, full-contact drills, such as the Oklahoma drill, blindside blocks, pop-up kicks, clipping, and targeting are no longer allowed. Additionally, many schools have implemented their own safety precautions by limiting the amount of players on the field and in pads during practice, as well as eliminating contact in two-a-day practices.
Coaches and players also receive mandatory training in concussion recognition and management to increase football safety awareness. In fact, concussion reoccurrences across 20 different high school sports have declined over the last decade, likely as a result of better protocols in concussion management.
Teaching Proper Technique
Across all levels of football, coaches are teaching a new way to tackle. Certain coaches used to teach players to put their heads in front of the ball-carrier when making a tackle, essentially using their head as an extra limb to prevent their opponents from moving forward.
Today, coaches are employing new strategies that reduce the risk of head injuries, even at the professional level. For example, the Seattle Seahawks teach “Hawk tackling,” which is a rugby-style method that focuses on using your shoulder for leverage while hitting the ball-carrier’s thighs. And in youth football, players learn to wrap and roll instead of going in head first.
Even more, the NFL Way to Play is an educational initiative designed to demonstrate proper technique, explain fundamental concepts and share best practices. Football safety efforts are also being implemented in flag leagues where to successfully remove their opponent’s flags, players must square up, bend their knees and align their head exactly as they would in tackle football.
As we continue to learn from research—some studies have found adverse mental health and cognitive functions associated with tackle football, while others haven’t—parents and guardians should feel empowered to promote conversations around football safety.
Parents should inquire about their league’s strategies in preventing injuries. Understanding the ways in which a program is trying to protect its players, coupled with reading the emerging research, can help parents and guardians make informed decisions.
"Flag is where I developed my love and passion for the game.
Maybe some will pursue tackle. If they don’t, I hope they had a great time playing flag and appreciate the game."
- Drew Brees, NFL Quarterback
Playing football helps children develop a sense of discipline, teamwork and responsibility. But when it comes to the best age to start playing, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach.
NFL FLAG offers non-contact programs for boys and girls starting at age 5 through 17 years old. Some families are ready to compete right away, while others wait a few years before participating. It really depends on the child and their personal development.
Physical development: Being a member on any sports team takes a certain level of coordination and gross motor skills. In flag football, coaches tailor their practice to each age group. For example, children aged 5-to 7-years-old learn the basics, while 8-to 10-year-olds focus on position-specific skills and are more emotionally mature. But in general, your child should have enough coordination to run up and down the field while holding a football or pulling a flag off an opponent.
Understand teamwork: One of the biggest benefits of organized sports is that children learn what it means to be a team member. This is especially true in football where there are so many moving parts and every player’s contribution counts. If you feel that your child is ready to understand sportsmanship and teamwork, they will gain a lot from joining a flag football team.
Discipline: Playing on a team requires children to come to practice, learn the rules, listen to coaches, and participate in drills and other activities. They make a commitment to work hard and show up every week. And by doing so, they gain a sense of discipline. Parents should feel comfortable that their children can respond well to a structured team environment.
For some kids, flag football is a great way to test the waters first before deciding whether they want to play tackle football. They can develop their technical skills without the intimidating physical contact. Flag football is an inclusive sport and opens the doors to many players, including female athletes. In fact, women's flag football is on track to become a sanctioned college sport.
However, many athletes still choose the tackle football route. Even though participation has dropped slightly, football is the most popular sport among high school boys, with over 1 million participants. And then, of course, there are families that let their children play both.
Every family’s situation is unique. The best way to make your decision is to analyze the data, interpret it based on your child’s needs, and then choose the right option for your family. To make it easier for you, we outlined the biggest differences between tackle football and flag football.
The most notable difference between flag football and tackle football is, well, tackling. In flag football, contact is not permitted. Players wear flags and defenders are tasked with removing the flags in order to “tackle” their opponent. If the ball carrier can reach the goal line with both flags intact, he or she scores. That being said, you will find some forms of flag football that allow blocking; however, NFL FLAG is strictly non-contact.
Here are a few other key differences:
Number of players on the field: In general, there are fewer players on the field in flag football. The most common youth flag football leagues are 5 on 5 and 7 on 7. The field is also shorter to accommodate the smaller team size.
Faster pace: Without tackling, flag football games are much faster paced. Think about it: less timeouts, no kick offs, less stoppage time— kids are flying out there. And as a result, the games are shorter than tackle football as well (usually an hour or less).
Rules: To eliminate contact, you’ll find many differences between tackle football and flag football rules. For example, quarterbacks aren’t allowed to run with the ball in flag football. Diving, blocking, screening and fumbles aren’t allowed—once the ball hits the ground, it’s dead. See the complete list of flag football rules here.
"My experience with flag football has been amazingly positive. I have seen it change lives for scholar athletes.
Flag football offers diversity in life and builds character."
- Edwin Cook, NFL FLAG Parent (13-14 Boys)
Flag football is taking off. The number of 6-to-12-year-olds playing has increased by 38 percent, to more than 1.5 million, since 2015. And for a good reason—not only does it help youth players learn football fundamentals in a competitive environment, but it also teaches the value of teamwork and leadership.
The Aspen Institute created an extensive white paper on the benefits of youth flag football, noting: “We suspect that flag football could prepare children for the world ahead no less readily than tackle football, and other sports, especially if delivered by coaches trained to work with youth.”
Because of its fast pace, flag football is physically demanding and can significantly improve cardiovascular endurance. It also helps with hand-eye coordination, strength, and agility.