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The Great Debate

Simple answer - kids should play flag football until approximately 6th or 7th grade, then move to tackle football. Kids SHOULD NOT play tackle football until middle school. If you want to know more, or disagree, read below. 

Keep in mind, I'm a high school varsity football coach. 

Click below to jump to that section or scroll down. 


When you understand the cumulative effects of subconcussive trauma (when kids bump heads and it doesn't result in a concussion), and what happens at the age of proprioception, you'll agree, flag football until 6th or 7th grade is the answer. Don't fall into the "This is how we've always done it" trap. 

Here's an article from Youth Football Online that gives reasons why kids should play tackle football. 

Absolutely nothing on this list actually explains why kids need to play before middle school. 

This sums it up:

“When you start to play before age 12, it’s associated with worse later life outcomes.”

In a study of 246 former youth football players, she said, “Those that played before age 12 saw cognitive symptoms and mood swings an average of 13 years earlier than those who did not begin to play until after age 12.”

Dr. Ann McKee from the CTE Center at Boston University


"As we're learning more about CTE...we're finding that it's not the number of concussions that predicts CTE, it's the cumulative number of years spent playing football. So, if a child starts at age 5 vs age 14, that's about ten times the risk."


Subconcussive trauma is a bump or blow to the head that does not cause symptoms. A collision while playing sports is one way a person can get a subconcussive head impact.

Here is a great article from Dr. Bart Grelinger where he says subconcussive head trauma still can cause irreversible damage to the 100 billion fragile, hair-like neurons in the brain and can result in the same outcomes as someone diagnosed with a concussion, including early-onset Alzheimer’s type symptoms, changes in behavior and ultimately chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. The article is here

Learn more with this Fact Sheet for Youth

Sports Coaches from the CDC.

Also read this article from the Concussion

Legacy Foundation on Subconcussive


Here is a research article on NCBI by Dr.

Brian Johnson, Dr. Thomas Neuberger, Dr.

Michael Gay, Dr. Mark Hallett, and Dr.

Semyon Slobounov on the Effects of

Subconcussive Head Trauma on the

Default Mode Network of the Brain. Here are two outstanding quotes from the NCBI article:

"Although they are less severe than a full-blown concussive episode, subconcussive impacts happen much more frequently and current research has suggested this form of head trauma may have an accumulative effect and lead to neurological impairment later in life."

"Although using a task-based approach Talavage and colleagues reported significant alterations in fMRI activation in a study of 11 high school football players attributed to subconcussive impacts sustained over the course of a single season, despite any clinically observable impairment."

Here' is a study found in Annual Reviews on

Mitigating the Consequences of Subconcussive

Head Injuries completed by Dr. Eric Nauman, Dr.

Thomas Talavage, and Dr. Paul Auerbach. Here

are two quotes from the study:
"In sports, minimization may be effected through

changes in the number or nature of collision

activities in practices and games, improved training

to promulgate more safe techniques, and

improvements in protective equipment." 

"These low-level injuries are poorly connected to

readily observable clinical impairments that may be identified as concussion symptoms—an observation not altogether surprising given the complexity and interconnectedness of the brain."






Proprioception, otherwise known as kinesthesia, is your body’s ability to sense movement, action, and location. It’s present in every muscle movement you have.

Without proprioception, you wouldn’t be able to move without thinking about your next step. Proprioception allows you to walk without consciously thinking about where to place your foot next. It lets you touch your elbow with your eyes closed.

This is the concept behind the Long-Term Athlete Development Models and "age appropriate" training. 

We all know someone we went to school with who wasn't really much of an athlete until he or she got into middle school or early high school. Then people were saying, "Where did that come from?" The Age of Proprioception (AoP) generally aligns with puberty and is a growth in the general awareness of our bodies in space. 

This elevated athletic awareness helps the athletes to produce and reproduce finer motor skills, modify individual movement patterns, and better adjust to the surrounding athletic environment. This is why a 7-year-old will likely struggle with baseball swing adjustments, but a high school varsity player will likely be able to. Learn more on the Relative Age Effect here. 

The focus of attention for pre AoP athlete should be on development of foundational and fundamental movement skills, along with development of muscle strength using a variety of combination exercises and bodyweight movements. For post AoP athletes, once they can demonstrate proficiency of motor skill development, those skills can be developed and applied to sport specific settings. Simplified, trying to teach a pre AoP athlete fine motor skills will often result in failure (and coaches being frustrated that the player "can't get it.") It's better to wait to change fine motor movements until post AoP.  Find more information in the article Using LTAD to Program for a Middle School Athlete and a High School Athlete

Generally speaking, the more complex the movement patterns, and the faster that patterns is conducted, the more difficult it is to modify.

Now apply this to football. Blocking, tackling, and being tackled are quick, fast, aggressive combination skills that, when done correctly, can be safe and very effective. But when the athlete is unable to (due to not being proprioceptively developed yet) apply correct technique, it becomes less effective, and even worse, more dangerous. 

So, teaching a football player to block, tackle, and be tackled would be best done when the athlete is proprioceptively developed in order for them to do it the right way which makes it the most effective, and the safest. The athlete not knowing (not physically being able to) block or tackle the correct way opens the door for subconcussive trauma (above). 

Subconcussive Trauma
Age of Proprioception
CDC Flag vs. Tackle.jpg

USA Football

Football Development Model

USA Fooball
Click here to learn more! 
This is USA Football’s new initiative designed to make the game safer by reducing contact and teaching in a way that meets an athlete where they are in their development.




USA Football is introducing a new model for youth football. The Football Development Model is designed to help coaches teach athletes based on their age, the skill they are learning and game type. Our approach assists with the development of young athletes and allows them to learn the game and related skills in a progression that best suits them.


This path offers young athletes more opportunities to play the game and choose the type of football that they want to play.












Like many sports, football has changed and evolved over time. Regardless of challenges it has faced, the sport remains “America’s game” with millions of young athletes participating nationwide.

Our model is designed to be a smarter and safer way to play and teach the game. By establishing different levels of contact and game types at each game category, parents can identify the right entry point for their athlete. For coaches, the model helps USA Football further advance standards in coach education and certification.



Helping athletes progress from flag to tackle hasn't been straight forward. The new model bridges the divide - whether that's through coach education or ways to play.

Let's focus on the Game Category called Limited Contact. It acts as a bridge from flag to full contact, played on both smaller and full-sized fields. Wearing helmets and shoulder pads, plus TackleBar® harnesses or flag belts, athletes learn how to block, track and engage without purposefully going to the ground.


CASE STUDY: See how a league in Indiana bridged the divide, including parent and administrator reactions. 

Click here to learn more about the game types. 

Click here to get to the case study. 



USA Football created a group of medical,

football and athlete development experts to

develop ways to improve age-appropriate

teaching methods, set standards to reduce

contact, and define a progression of game

types to benefit athlete development,

confidence and overall well-being.




The Football for All™ podcast has everything

you need to know about the model and what

it means for everyone in youth football - no

matter your role. This podcast includes

interviews those from the medical and

science field as well as the football field. 


Listen to learn what parents like about it, what coaches gain from it and how leagues implement it to create a stronger future for our game and the kids who play it.


Football is safer now.JPG

Download or Read documents below:

Non-Contact Flag Football 

USA Football Blog


NFL Flag

Finally, here is a provocative website that compares tackle football to smoking. While its application is a bit off, the website does provide some great research articles. 

Tackle Can Wait – Flag Football Under 14 | Concussion Legacy Foundation

Now do you believe me? Here are the arguments against the concept of flag until middle school. 

#1 The athlete won't be ready for blocking and tackling by the time they get to high school. They'll be behind other schools. (This is the argument that says the earlier they start the better off they'll be.)

Response: Nope. While they may be a little behind in the 7th grade year, by the middle of the season and on into the 8th grade year, they'll be just fine. Remember, that's the Age of Proprioception - this is where they're best primed to learn the fine motor skills required. 

This is where a "summer bridge" type of program eliminates all of this. In the summer between 6th and 7th grade, the school can run a "Blocking and Tackling" camp where the proper and safe fundamentals are taught and practiced by the players. It's that easy. 

#2 Flag isn't really safer than tackle. 


I laughed so hard when I watched this video. The study the referenced can be found here. Here are the actual results and conclusion of the study:



A total of 46,416 exposures and 128 injuries were reported. The mean age at injury was 10.64 years. The hazard ratio for tackle football (compared with flag football) was 0.45 (95% CI, 0.25-0.80; P = .0065). The rate of severe injuries per exposure for tackle football was 1.1 (95% CI, 0.33-3.4; P = .93) times that of the flag league. The rate for concussions in tackle football per exposure was 0.51 (95% CI, 0.16-1.7; P = .27) times that of the flag league.


Injury is more likely to occur in youth flag football than in youth tackle football. Severe injuries and concussions were not significantly different between leagues. Concussion was more likely to occur during games than during practice. Players in the sixth or seventh grade were more likely to suffer a concussion than were younger players."

There were significant limitations in this study which could skew the numbers. One such limitation is that the injury reporting was completed electronically by a "team official." Some of the youth tackle football teams had an athletic trainer (a medical professional familiar with sport injuries) complete the reporting while many of the flag teams had a coach do it. 

In any case, the study does not take into account subconcussive trauma which we now know is cumulative and increases the likelihood of the athlete receiving a concussion later in their life. Subconcussive trauma is the primary concern for youth tackle football players. 

And I saved the best for last. 

#3 "Back in my day, I started playing tackle football in 3rd grade and I'm just fine."



But we now know so much more about how the brain is affected each time an impact is made; why would we risk that with our children? We know so much more now than our coaches knew when we were kids. It's a sad and ignorant (not in a derogatory sense but in a lack of understanding sense) perspective to believe that, simply because it's the way we did it as a kid, it's the best, or right way. 

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