Even when the best and most logical information is presented to them, human beings can be very slow to make wholesale changes to ingrained traditions.
Joe Eisenmann likes to say a good example of that is smoking in public.
“In 1964, the Surgeon General of the United States said, based on evidence, smoking causes lung cancer,” Eisenmann said. “And 40 years later, it was banned in public places. It took 40 years.”
Eisenmann is working on another fascinating case that is testing that theory: taking youth football in the U.S. and doing something logical with it.
As USA Football’s director of high performance and education, Eisenmann is at the forefront of a pilot program this year that involves putting smaller teams of young players onto smaller fields instead of running traditional 11-on-11 games on full-sized 100-yard fields, i.e., the same distances and on-field roster sizes used in the NFL.
Eisenmann notes that USA Football “wanted to follow USA Hockey and the American Development Model,” and that USA Hockey has “led in this space.” He also notes that, despite some initial pushback from traditionalists, the early returns are favorable from almost all involved.
Making the switch
Eisenmann came to his current role after spending 20 years in academia. He has a Ph.D in pediatric exercise science and has published numerous papers on healthy youth development. But he grew tired of “nobody reading my papers outside of academics” and of listening at conferences to “people talk in what I call the echo chamber.”
USA Hockey was somewhat of an early adopter when it came to embracing the concept that youth players need different things than full-grown adult players. USA Football is a little later to the game, but Eisenmann is helping that governing body catch up.
“What we’re doing at USA Football is putting together a long-term athletic development plan,” he said. “It reflects really the best practices in youth sports. It’s parallel to hockey with the cross-ice movement.”
This year is all about gathering data. Ten leagues across the country are part of USA Football’s pilot program. Different age groups from first-graders through middle-schoolers are playing on 40-yard and 60-yard fields, with anywhere from six to eight players per team.
“We’re doing research. We have GPS technology for tracking player movements. We have surveys and focus groups for parents and coaches in terms of their experiences with the game,” Eisenmann said. “At the end of the season, we’ll take the info and make guidelines for our ADM. Next year we’ll release our ADM and allow organizations around the United States to opt in.”
Change is hard
Just as hockey faced a sometimes uphill skate when trying to educate hardened resistors about how something new – including shrinking the rink – was more beneficial to youth development, USA Football has also met some resistance.
“For a lot of people, it makes sense,” Eisenmann said. “I go talk to people and 50 percent say it makes a lot of sense, and the other 50 are old traditionalists. You guys have it in hockey. You’ve fought these battles in hockey.”
But Eisenmann is convinced that with more time and more evidence – some with the plain old eye test – momentum will build.
“From a sports science standpoint, what we’re doing is best practices. But humans have their own belief systems. Despite research evidence and expert advice, some of these people still think what they’re doing is the best way to grow hockey or football players,” he said. “An important message is that this is bigger than football or hockey. This is about physical activity, health and quality of life.”
Change is good
One immediate benefit coaches say they are seeing from smaller games and smaller fields is that it’s flat-out easier to pass the football.
“The cognitive demands are easier to handle than with an 11-on-11 game. You had 22 people flying around on the field. Now you may only have 12,” Eisenmann said. “One thing I’ve heard from a lot of coaches is that it’s much easier to pass. If you go to 11 against 11 in youth football, it’s almost all running. With less people on the field, the ability of a youngster to read the field, read the play and be able to execute becomes a little easier.”
Additionally, having fewer players on the field also allows coaches to devote more attention to each individual.
“This isn’t just about game types, this is about skill development,” Eisenmann said. “It’s like a classroom teacher. With more students, each gets less individual work. As part of our pilot program, we also did a one-day coach clinic with all the coaches in the pilot leagues. It went beyond Xs and Os, having a lot to do with effectively communicating with kids and coaching the whole child.”
Since the pilot program with 10 leagues started, nearly 400 other leagues have contacted USA Football with inquiries about the impact of the changes. What they’ve heard from USA Football is a consistent message repeated by Eisenmann.
“Overwhelmingly the leagues have said, ‘this is one of the best things we’ve done in our league, ever.’ It’s been a very positive response,” he said. “But it’s a slow process. Not everything is going to happen overnight. It’s a culture change.”