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  • Writer's pictureScott Lancaster

FLAG FOOTBALL:THE IDEAL ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE SPORT FOR YOUTH ATHLETES


Scott Lancaster - Whole Child Sports, former NFL & US Soccer Executive, Sports Performance Expert





Back in 1995 I was hired by the NFL to increase participation in youth football.  At that time kids in great numbers were choosing other sports over football. I remember meeting with NFL Marketing executives Sara Levinson and Don Garber,  where they explained their concerns regarding the future popularity of football.  Their objective was to maintain and grow the game as the number one sport in the United States. To their credit they recognized the importance, backed by research, that fan affinity grew and became stronger if people had played the game.  That was a major problem for the NFL.  Youth Tackle Football was actually driving participants away from the game due to the game’s physicality and focus on contact, the reliance on size over athleticism, and the constant interrupted stop and go nature of play compared to other sports available to kids at the time.


I knew the game had to change. Football lacked the inclusivity that makes the game accessible for everyone.  Back in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s football was not a welcoming sport for females. Tackle football was not something a majority of females would ever consider playing. Another factor was how much the sport relied on an athlete’s size. Most kids could never dream of being the super human size of an NFL Player. Most loved playing the Madden NFL Video Game and watching the weekly highlights produced by NFL Films.  But most could not fathom playing tackle football. Not to mention their mom’s allowing them to play over the justified fear of getting seriously injured.


What these NFL Marketing Executives were seeking was to transfer my successful background marketing and developing youth grass root programs at US Soccer, a sport that had all the ingredients kids and parents (especially moms) were attracted too, and making that happen for youth football.  I knew at that moment football needed to reinvent itself and offer numerous creative avenues to participate. We needed to appeal to a kid’s mind set and take the physicality and fear of getting hit out of the equation and emphasize the fun athletic aspects of the game’s skills.


What we developed from that point forward (NFL FLAG, among other programs) opened the door for more kids to play and enjoy the great game of football. Now flag football has become one of the  favorite sports for millions of kids to play.


This is not the time for football to relax and become satisfied with their new and improved participation results.  It now represents an incredible opportunity for football to become the ultimate athletic development program for all sports.  Securing the sport’s position as a highly regarded sport that provides solutions and avoids contributing to the perpetual issues that youth sport organizations create today.


Similar to when we first created NFL Flag, and were met with resistance from the football world, many within the sport claimed Flag Football wasn’t real football and would never surpass tackle. Now flag football has not only rocked the traditional football community with it’s participation growth and success, it’s now poised to become the most important developmental sports experience for athletes through adolescence. But only if it continues to follow through as a inclusive fun experience.


NFL Flag football was created with all this mind. When I created the program the vision was to address the many of issues plaguing youth sports and not fall into the same trap other organized sports encounter. Issues such as ….


  • Kids forced to play adult games with adult rules (i.e -adult size fields, equipment, rules)

  • The over-exposure kids receive to command based coaching.

  • The ritual of pigeon-holing kids into positions due to their size or adult-perceived abilities.

  • Poorly organized practices where kids stand & watch rather than move & play.

  • Overemphasis on winning a game or championship & disregarding all other positives.





It also went further to address additional issues parents, urban markets, and athletes encounter as they continue their journey through youth sports:


Equal female participation.

An inexpensive alternative to organized sport participation.

Limited time commitment compared to other sports.

An effective, complimentary and all encompassing off-season training activity for any athlete.


The objective was to continue providing a healthy development model (both physically & cognitively) that allowed the athlete to evolve through a progression of readapted ways to learn and play football.  When I recently revisited the plans I crafted, soon after leaving the league, I found a plan that detailed what football could become if it applied a more open-minded approach that expands the game with more creativity and healthier approaches to developing young athletes.  Those plans resulted in me writing and co-writing several books on youth sports solutions:


Fair Play - Making Organized Sports a Great Experience for Your Kids (Putnam/Penguin, 2001)

Athletic Fitness for Kids (Human Kinetics, 2007)

Beyond Wining - Smart parenting in a Toxic Sports Environment (2013)


What these books accomplished, by incorporating our tested and proven solutions, is the creation and expansion of successful programs such as NFL Flag, and an effective training methodology, Champions of Speed, that positions flag football as one of the best foundational programs to improve athletic movement skills while greatly reducing injuries.


How can I make this claim?


For the past 15 years I’ve been an athletic performance coach.  I’ve successfully worked with athletes from the youth through the professional ranks to improve their speed, agility, strength, on-field/court awareness and mindset. Throughout these years of improving an athlete’s performance, combined with my 12 years developing football programs for the NFL I’ve come to realize that flag football and the additional readapted games I’ve created since leaving the league do more to  improve and compliment an athletes’ overall performance than any other activity.


Flag football in it’s traditional form is a great cross training sport. However this alone will not meet the needs of all athletes attempting to improve their performance. It’s the readapted games and skill challenges created from flag football that provides the secret sauce for athletic development.


I‘ve incorporate flag football skills, games & skill competitions as way to enhance an athlete’s movement skill sets while training basketball, soccer, lacrosse athletes. It’s a fun and effective way to teach movement skills using a fresh approach.


Flag football encompasses the following skills that rely on an athletes SPEED, AGILITY, BALANCE, STRENGTH, and INTUITIVE CREATIVITY (maybe the most overlooked and vital athletic skill). Yes, other sports provide skill development in these areas as well, but not as completely as flag football.  A soccer player (obviously) cannot use their hands on every play. And a basketball player is always attempting to execute with a target 10 feet off the ground.  Though both sports entail many athletic skills, flag football does not have those structural limitations placed on an athlete.


As a matter of explanation let’s breakdown the number of athletic skills involved in one single flag football play.


On offense every play begins with players (except the quarterback & center) immediately accelerating down field to get open to receive a pass or hand-off to run with the ball. The center often follows the others to get open several seconds after. The quarterback also has the option to accelerate downfield if they choose to run with the ball. Obviously a key movement skill on all flag football plays is ACCELERATION.


This is followed by another movement skill, DECELERATION. In order to get open for a pass players must learn to slow down and prepare themselves to either receive a pass, deceive an opponent by executing a move also highlighting a third key movement skill, CHANGE OF DIRECTION. A skill that requires the development of  BALANCE (Body Awareness) to execute at an optimal level.


On the defensive side of flag the same movement skills apply with the addition of  executing 360 degrees of movement. I often use flag football techniques and drills to teach soccer and basketball players the techniques and execution of deceleration while pressing and closing down an opponent.  I will also have athletes wear flags & belts as part of these drills, where athletes attempt to pull a flag helping them to read an opponents hips and cut off angles.


There are many skills athletes acquire and/or enhance through flag football and apply to other sports they play.  But one of the most important reasons I use flag football when training athletes is injury prevention.  The movement techniques used to attempt to pull an opponents flag or keep your own flag from being pulled are the perfect set of movement skills and drills used to teach proper and safe dynamic body movements. Balance, proper shifting of weight, maintaining body alignment and positioning your feet under your hips establishes solid stability and protects the lower extremities (including knees, ankles, hips) that plague many athletes, especially females.


As ACL & MCL tears continue to rage through women’s soccer I’ve had great success preparing and protecting female athletes by incorporating flag football skills and fun drills. When you combine all these flag football attributes it’s no wonder the sport is becoming a main choice for young athletes.


Flag football has the opportunity to become the most unique and important development program in youth sports.  When you consider it’s unique and wide appeal, no other youth sport provides such an all-encompassing development of physical & cognitive skill sets. Flag Football is perfectly positioned to thrive as one of the most important developmental sports for athletes through adolescence.

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