We play in the Greater Eastside Junior Football Association (GEJFA), which is ultimately governed by the Boys & Girls Club of America. There are, today, 18 clubs in GEJFA, and each of our clubs are aligned with a high school. GEJFA is one of the oldest and largest leagues in the Pacific Northwest, and the high schools within our league frequently win state championships. GEJFA is a developmental league – every child is allowed to play, there are no try-outs, nor are any children “cut” from the team.
Most Youth Football leagues have some form of a “Minimum Play” rule. Typically, these leagues require teams to make sure every player gets at least 8-12 plays per game. The intent is to make sure that those kids that are coming to practices and working hard get the opportunity to play in games regardless of their ability.
Unfortunately, if you talk to parents of players in these leagues, you are certain to hear that many children rarely get their minimum plays. It’s not unusual to see teams of 30-40 players, with the same 15-20 players getting all of the playing time. Their best 5-6 usually even play both offense and defense. It’s heartbreaking to watch the lesser ability kids standing there on the sidelines all game hoping desperately that they will get a chance to play. If they’re lucky, their team will get up by many touchdowns and then the coaches will send these kids in for their few minutes of playing time in the 4th quarter. Or worse, the team is getting completely blown-out by their opponent and the coaches throw these kids into the game so their “star players” don’t get hurt. And this is happening at the 7-year-old level and up. These kids haven’t even had the chance to develop physically and who knows what they will become once their bodies grow. Most will probably end-up quitting football, never to come back.
We do things much differently in GEJFA. There is a 12 play Minimum Play rule, but we take it even further. It’s called the Substitution Rule. Essentially, when the ball changes possession (e.g. Offense turns the ball over after 4 downs), all of the players that are on the field must be replaced. There are more details to how this is managed, but the intent is to make it very difficult for a coach to leave a kid on the sidelines most of the game.
The side effect of this Substitution Rule is that our teams are generally much smaller than teams in other leagues. While a typical youth football team in other leagues will have 30-40 players, most of the teams in GEJFA have 22 or less players. Why is this good? Coaches know they have to play all players for most of the game. That means that they can’t ignore the lesser ability kids if they want to be competitive because those kids will be coming into the game. They have to coach-up EVERY player.
Does this mean that the level of play in GEJFA isn’t as good as other leagues? Probably. At least at our lower division levels. There’s no doubt that a team with 30-40 players that only plays their 11 best on offense and defense will perform better on the field than most GEJFA teams that aren’t able to put their best players on both offense and defense.
Should we care? No. Remember, we are a developmental league. The goal is to teach the children football fundamentals, sportsmanship, teamwork, and how to be good citizens. And KEEP THEM COMING BACK! Ask high school coaches what frustrates them most about youth football programs and they tell you the same thing: Kids are mistreated at the youth level and never make it to the high school program.
A 7-year-old boy I coached in his first year of football is a perfect example of why we need to have more developmental leagues out there. This boy clearly wanted to be a good football player, but he’d shutdown in practices and often times let kids use him as a tackling dummy. I literally had to talk him out from underneath our bench one game. But we didn’t give up on him and he kept coming back. After a few years, he developed into one of the best Linebackers on the team and I have no doubt he will be a High School Varsity starter. This is not an isolated story. I’ve heard it over and over from other coaches in our club and around the league.
There are other things that make our league special, but the way we ensure all players get their chance to play football is one of the biggest. I’ll highlight some of the other key differences in future articles.