No small decision

Choosing to play football or soccer not always easy at youth league level
Friday, August 27, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:50 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 5, 2008

Football was born in the United States and Americans love it. But like domestic cars, the home-grown game competes with a foreign import: soccer.

The two games reward different athletic skills. Football is a game of strength, but also well-laid plans, with playbooks detailing precise moves. Soccer games, in contrast, rely on quick thinking and proper execution of practiced skills to create an offense.

The choice of sports often comes down to size and parental fears that football is out of the question for smaller boys.

The idea that smaller boys are at higher risk for injuries is a misconception, though.

In 2002, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., conducted a study on 915 youth football players from fourth to eighth grades. The study concluded that there was no higher risk of injury in football than in other youth sports. The most common injuries were bruises.

“Kids at this age don’t generate enough speed to really hurt each other when tackling,” said Martin Parker, who has volunteered with Columbia Youth Football League for 11 years.

The study reported that the risk of injury increases as boys get older, citing increased strength and aggressiveness as factors.

Columbia youth football has rules intended to keep the players safe. The league plays flag football until third grade, when the boys start with full pads. There is a weight-limit for quarterbacks, running backs and receivers, which increases as the boys age. There is also a draft system that strives to distribute larger players equally among teams.

Occasionally, an athlete tries soccer and football. Laurel Despins’ son, Sean, played spring soccer and fall flag football before graduating to full contact.

“He couldn’t wait to play tackle. He watched it on TV and thought it looked cool,” she said. “As one of the smallest kids on the team, he played quarterback so that the offensive line could protect him. He really enjoyed it until he got flattened twice in the last game of the season. He went back to soccer.”

Because both sports’ seasons can conflict in the fall, most boys choose one game over the other. Sometimes the reason is simple: size.

Bruce Davis, whose son plays soccer for Columbia Pride, said young boys grow at varying rates and the difference in size can be staggering. On one seventh- and eighth-grade football team in the league, the lightest player weighed 89 pounds while the heaviest was 215.

“Soccer is great for smaller kids,” said Jim Leftwich, another Pride parent. “They can gain skills and be scorers. I’ve seen short kids zip around defenders.”

Phil Threatt, a certified athletic trainer and youth football league parent, said that many smaller boys play until the eighth grade and then choose a different activity.

“High school is more intense,” Threatt said. “That’s when the physics really start to work against you.”

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