Dear Athletic Support: My son will start 7th grade football next fall. He’s only played flag football up until this point. My wife and I thought that was the best approach. But now I’m a little worried about how he will handle the physical side of the game. Are there any ways I could “toughen” him up and get him ready for full contact without being too hard on him?
— Time 2 Get Tough
Dear Tough: The first day of full pads is always a memorable one. I was in third grade the first time I took a hit. I’ll never forget how heavy the helmet felt as I stood in line, watching the other boys go at it. When it was my turn, I looked up and saw the biggest fourth grader on the planet standing across from me.
The drill was simple. I was supposed to run the ball past the orange cone behind the gigantic kid.
There was just one problem…
The gigantic kid!
The coach blew his whistle before I had time to think, I took off running. A split second later, I was flat on my back, staring up at a cloudless blue sky, grinning from ear to ear.
Maybe I was grinning because I’d survived. Maybe I was in shock. I don’t know, but I do know that I never shied away from another hit again.
As a coach, I watched this same rite of passage play out at the start of every 7th grade football season I was a part of. Most all the boys were a little wary of contact initially, but some got a “taste” for it quicker than others. Some never got used to it at all.
The best thing you can do at this point is teach your son proper technique. My favorite coaching point for tackling was always, “Head up. Eyes up. Chest up.” This keeps a kid from lowering his head and spearing, which is bad on both ends.
The same technique basically holds true for the ball carrier. Keep your head up!
In regard to getting him physically prepared for full contact — that’s tough. If you happen to own two sets of youth football gear, I guess you could suit your son up in the backyard, along with a friend, and try to run a few tackling drills yourself.
I’d be very careful with this option, though. School coaches go through extensive safety training. Your boy will be in good hands when it comes time to don the pads.
Do you remember your first tackle? If so, maybe consider sharing that experience with your son. There is nothing more encouraging than a shared experience. If you got flattened (like I did), then that’s even better! Now you can tell your son how you got back up again, which is the most important lesson in the end.
Eli Cranor is a former professional quarterback and coach turned award-winning author. Send questions for “Athletic Support” to firstname.lastname@example.org