A Closer Look At The Leeds Academy of American Football

Continuing our series looking at those championing the Junior (U19) game – and younger levels – around the #BritballNation, we turn our attention to the fine work of the Leeds Academy of American Football (LAAF).

The Academy was created in the spring of 2013 to facilitate participation, provide coaching and support in schools, colleges & independent community teams and also provide higher level opportunities and support for individuals that have been identified as exceptional.

LAAF

It was recognised that, with extensive research and the aid of Leeds Beckett University’s Athletic Union and staff, the sport has much more potential for growth in the region.

As well as schools coaching, the long term goal of the Leeds Academy is to facilitate and administer American Football in the city and wider area for Primary (years 3-6), Secondary (Years 7-11) and College/FE (Years 12+) and to recruit and develop coaches to assist in the growth of the sport.

With the administrative aid of Leeds Beckett University and Carnegie Sports Coaching, the Leeds Academy has managed to successfully work in 33 schools and colleges in Yorkshire, enabling growth to fit the demand for the sport of American Football.

Image courtesy of Judith Buchanan/Leeds Academy of American Football
Image courtesy of Judith Buchanan/Leeds Academy of American Football

Over the past 12 months, the Academy has focussed on continued participation as opposed to one-off or short term taster sessions/blocks of work. A number of after-school clubs have been created in the local area with the aim of the players then feeding into the weekend and evening sessions at Leeds Beckett. These have involved both flag football and contact football (mini community league in June/July). LAAF do however gain just as many players to their weekend practices through paid social media advertising as they do delivering in schools and promoting the Academy in that way.

The weekend and evening sessions form the ‘Assassins’ programme, which is the element of the Academy that people within the sport will be more familiar with, but is really only the ‘tip of the iceberg’ in terms of the work they do. It is part of the Carnegie Junior Sports Academy (CJSA) which also compromises of athletics, basketball and racket sports – half-term camps are also available to young people.

The Assassins in U19 action against Highland Wildcats.
The Assassins in U19 action against Highland Wildcats. Image courtesy of Judith Buchanan/Leeds Academy of American Football

Another aspect of CJSA is that students at the University coach the sessions; they currently have 3 students coaching (2 from the men’s programme – Sheldon Campbell and Chris Jones and 1 from the Women’s programme, GB Women’s running back Gaby Knops). All three do a fantastic job helping lead the sessions and working with the younger players and are working towards sports coaching and related qualifications.

Back to the Assassins…

They currently have 3 age groups: 7-15s (flag), 14-16s (contact), 17-19s (contact). Sessions are delivered almost all year round. They break for the Christmas period for 4 weeks, 3 weeks in September and then the younger age group stop during August due to the Summer camps being on anyway. Other than that, the Assassins recruit and develop players every week;

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This has paid dividends as we gain interest from kids during the NFL season primarily. – Dale Bottomley, Academy Manager

The contact teams compete in the BAFA National League. In their debut season at U19, the Assassins progressed to the semi-final of the Plate tournament, losing to the eventual winners, Highland Wildcats. 2016 represented the ‘sophomore’ National Leagues campaign for the U17 Assassins, who also progressed to the semi-final of the U17 Plate tournament before bowing out to the beaten finalists, Tamworth Phoenix.

Although we did enter the Flag group into the National Leagues last season, after long discussions with coaches, parents and players, we didn’t feel it was the ideal way to offer American football participation in our region outside of schools. – Dale Bottomley, Academy Manager

Instead, the Academy holds a mini-combine, NFL-style draft (not quite delivered in the same way!) and then a weekly league for the 7-15s (named the ‘Ultimate Flag League’). There are four teams (Hawks, Mavericks, Thunder and Wolfpack) – each has one or two coaches, a junior player as an assistant coach and ‘franchise player’. The league mainly uses standard flag rules but with a few adjusted elements. For example, the Quarterback is allowed to run on one play per drive. The First season of the UFL was such a success, the Academy will be looking to expand to five teams for UFL2 this year.

LAAF UFL

The Academy forms part of the overall American football programme at Leeds Beckett that also comprises of the Men’s BUCS squad and women’s community squad (the Leeds Carnegie Chargers). The only aspect not on offer is Men’s senior football but there are two teams locally that the university has links with. The coaching staff work closely together to share best practice, offer ideas/possible improvements and assist each other at team practices and games where needed. The programme is overseen by a full-time Sports Development Officer that is primarily responsible for increasing participation in American sports at the University and in the community – American football is one section of his portfolio.

Furthermore, the Academy has schools that pay coaches to deliver sessions; every school is different but the Academy has the philosophy that they want people to value the sport and not just give away their time for nothing. They have turned down schools who have asked for free sessions in the past only for them to then come back a few months later stating they now have a budget available, having spoken to other teaches in nearby schools.

Overall, the Academy has introduced 6500-7000 young people to the sport in the past 3 years. The aim now though is to have more young people playing regularly and to develop the most interested people (including University students and PE teachers) into future leaders of the sport.

The flag leaders award delivered through Carnegie Coach Education three times a year has allowed the Academy to train current and future PE teachers – many of whom are now in touch and running clubs in their respective schools. We believe this is the best way to ensure sustainability. – Dale Bottomley, Academy Manager

The Academy has been able to push players further up the football ‘pyramid’ in the past 6 months; notably there have been two players cross the pond to further their footballing ambitions. Lewis Riches completed one semester at Texas high school football powerhouse the Celina Bobcats and Josh Carpenter completed a season at the Royal Imperial Knights in Canada (although they play all of their games in the USA). Both players have learned a great deal, and are passing this on to and inspiring other Leeds-based players. The Academy also now has players older enough to progress to BUCS teams – Connor Jones-Bishop, Brad Crisp and Max Milburn – with Max now the starting QB at Division One Cardiff Cobras.

Double Coverage would like to thank the Leeds Academy of American Football, in particular Dale Bottomley, for sharing details of their success with the #BritballNation.

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Rob Amor

Rob somehow fits Britball around a hectic life of work, newborns, and rare, blissful, moments of quiet in which to nap. Rob stepped down from the Birmingham Bulls committee at the end of 2016 and walked away after 10 years at the club. He leads DC’s Adult league coverage and dabbles in a bit of BUCS. Follow him on Twitter – @RobAmorDC