Part of USA Football's mission is to make the game safer and more popular for youngsters.
With two steps it will unveil Friday, the governing body for the sport believes it is doing just that.
USA Football is embracing the U.S. Olympic Committee's American Development Model, which focuses on skill development by offering multiple entry points and types of a sport designed to bring more enjoyment of the game while also enhancing fitness.
The organization, which serves more than 10,000 school-based and youth programs through its nationally endorsed coaching education and playing standards programs, also is incorporating what it calls the "Tip of the Spear Contact System" that emphasizes smarter use of the hands and arms when blocking and defeating blocks. The system can deliver safer play, reduce helmet contact and advance skill development.
The American Development Model has worked well in dozens of sports that fall under the USOC's umbrella. USA Football CEO Scott Hallenbeck sees ADM has a natural progression for the gridiron.
"We took a step back and as a member of the USOC looked at what other governing bodies were doing," Hallenbeck says. "For instance, with ice hockey, with specifics for different ages — checking rules, modifying games — it was part of a progression. We have flag football and 11-a-side tackle, so there was not much of a progression. We've inserted the middle step, which we call rookie tackle.
"Rookie tackle is a modified game and we tested it in nine locations around the country. The idea is to cut the field in half ... play six- or seven- or eight-man games. Use a two-point stance, no special teams, kids play multiple positions, coaches can be on the field. This will help contribute to the positive overall experience and be an introduction to tackle football."
The best analogy might be with baseball, which has T-ball, then coach pitch, then player pitch.
The ADM program has five key areas, all of which can be applied to youth football:
—Universal access to create opportunity for all athletes. This means no cuts under age 12.
—Developmentally appropriate activities that emphasize motor and foundational skills.
"Shrinking the field and having modified tackle programs allows young athletes to grow into the game without having to play a version of the game they are not ready to navigate," says Chris Snyder, the USOC's director of coaching development. "This philosophy fits very well with football, and allows athletes to opt in at later ages without being put at a major disadvantage."
—Multi-sport participation. Snyder considers football a big cross-over sport, "so this emphasis will help athletes become well-rounded and stay away from over-training or specialization issues."
—A fun, engaging and progressively challenging atmosphere.
—Quality coaching at all age levels.
"USA Football already has a solid training program with an emphasis on safety first," Snyder says.
That's where the Tip of the Spear system comes in, too. Available to youth and high school football programs this year, it is specific to use of the hands. In 11-on-11 football, for example, tackling is a small fraction of the contact. The byproduct of using the hands properly and not the head is that it's safer.
"This is not only about safety, it's about performance," says Scott Peters, the chief instructor of the system for USA Football and a former NFL player. "But it is safety through superior technique.
"You can learn this right now," adds Peters, noting that players in the NFL and colleges have embraced the technique; he has consulted with more than 50 college and pro coaches on it. "It's very easy and simple to teach, it's transferrable through all the ranks of football. It's about how to teach them a better methodology."
Basically, Tip of the Spear teaches youngsters how to generate more force by using their hips to drive their hands. From their initial stance, they are taught an uncoiling of the hips to generate all the force in any contact from their hips, taking their head out of the equation.
"It's about how to build a culture around domination with the hands and shoulders," Peters says.
That's a critical component. Dr. Brian Hainline, the NCAA's chief medical officer and a former member of the USOC Sports Medicine Committee, says these two initiatives by USA Football address significant challenges the sport faces.
"What the ADM means is you should be doing sports in an age-specific and developmentally sound manner, not just physical but emotional and mental development," he says. "When the most important aspect is followed — when kids are introduced to sport and to safety and that they should be having fun, the likelihood they will remain engaged in sport and healthy activity far exceeds from when they're involved in early specialization and simply are focused on winning. It improves the ability to develop athleticism.
"USA Football is wise to be doing this."