Football season is nearly here. If you are a football fan, rooting for your home team — or, like me, rooting for the six-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots — you’ll be excited about cheering on your favorite pro or college team. However, if you are a parent, there is a good chance you won’t be nearly as thrilled if your child wants to play football.
The news about youth football over the past few years has been frightening. Concussions that are often undiagnosed and many other injuries have discouraged many parents from allowing their kids to play football, and with good reason. This is one of the reasons I suggest that kids who like football play touch and flag football. This can be great exercise, and the daily practice can be good for building body and brain muscle. It is also why I support children playing fantasy and video game football games because kids don’t get hurt or get concussions playing fantasy football.
Fantasy football is an online game where participants build their own fictional teams of professional football players who accumulate points based on their performance on the field. More than 60 million people play fantasy football, almost all adults. But the benefits of fantasy football for kids are many, including joining with parents and family in an online tech-savvy game. Fantasy football can promote the development of organization and planning skills (needed to prepare for the yearly draft and the weekly updates), lots of reading (in order to keep up with your players), math skills (including assessing probability and doing basic addition), and flexibility (regarding the inevitable injuries that impact your team).
As a psychologist who has observed too many teens with football-related concussions, I admit to being a bit of a hypocrite when it comes to my enjoyment of the violent sport of football. Football is a rough sport that rewards physical aggression. In order to be a good football player, you have to be willing to hit or be hit. Shoulder pads, helmets, and other protective gear help only so much, and potential concussions can have long-standing consequences for children and adults. I justify my interest in football by rationalizing that the adults who play football have made an informed choice to do so. In fantasy football, the competition is fueled by thinking skills, strategies, and some luck – but no longer any Andrew Luck.
But what if a kid loves football and wants to play the real thing? There are some alternatives to youth tackle football. Flag football does not allow tackling, and in most leagues blocking involving physical contact is prohibited. Touch football involves one or two hands to touch another player in order to stop that player’s progress. Both involve a lot of running around and coordination in which players must work in concert with each other. Sports with similar types of movements such as soccer and lacrosse may be somewhat less problematic, although newer research has raised concerns about the safety of many contact sports. While playing sports by its very nature runs the risk of injury, in our world of too many screens and sedentary activities, it is crucial that adults recognize the benefits of playing sports. Physical exercise is vital for kids, and there are data that suggest that kids who play sports video games are more likely to get outside and play the actual sports. Perhaps the same is true for playing fantasy sports.
There are other more subtle psychological benefits to team sports. Team sports facilitate connections with peers, learning to be part of a team, and being able to follow directions. The value of sports should not be underestimated. If you have a coach who recognizes the importance of player safety and a league that supports this type of approach, football may be a good choice for your child.
Until a few years ago, it was simple for kids and teens to join fantasy football leagues directed towards them. Unfortunately, these leagues were targeted by some zealous parents as promoting gambling. While no money was being exchanged, there were concerns that fantasy football for kids was encouraging sports gambling. As a result, websites no longer have leagues for kids, so parents need to help younger kids set up leagues, or teens can do it on their own. Many of the leading football writers such as Adam Schefter and Matthew Berry often talk about their friends and family leagues. It’s easy to set up a league at one of the major sites such as NFL.com, CBS.com, ESPN.com, or Yahoo.com.
If you decide that fantasy football is a good alternative to tackle football for your child or if you want to encourage your future quarterbacks to use their brains as well as their brawn, try a bit of fantasy football this season. I promise that your kids won’t get hurt or get concussions playing fantasy football. Have fun together, and do some thinking!
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