Resident administrator extraordinaire Matthew Davies takes a look at the state of the British game for the younger generation and makes a few suggestions…
By the time I started playing the sport at Glasgow University in 2005, Jimmy Burns was a ‘well-kent face’ around Scottish American Football, having made his name as a Running Back for the Glasgow Lions during their heyday and coaching the next generation of youth, junior and senior players in the West of Scotland through the Lions Junior, Pirates Senior and Scotland Youth setups. One summer, after I’d got to know him better, we were sitting with a number of other people in the bar overlooking the pitch at Lochinch, Glasgow, where the Tigers seniors were playing. Decked out in his customary grey trackies and sweatshirt, he spoke that day about what I’ve come to refer to as the Jimmy Burns Pyramid. This was Jimmy’s way of describing what he saw as the perfect setup for American Football organisations, to ensure increasing participation, growth and a strong talent output to senior. The pyramid is very simple: Jimmy outlined his belief that you should have three youth teams feeding every junior team and three junior teams feeding every senior team. Now the purpose of this article isn’t to discuss whether the Jimmy Burns Pyramid is the perfect model on which to build our sport; in my view you could have more youth teams and less junior (because of increased player numbers with the formats as they stand) and make it very successful, but that conversation has stuck with me and informed my understanding of the need to build a sustainable model in order to make sure our sport grows and improves in quality and that the teams within it remain viable.
Where are we now?
Since the end of the 2015 season, Scottish American Football has taken a considerable step backwards in that regard, with the Lanarkshire Longhorns, Edinburgh Wolves and Clackmannanshire Ravens Junior teams all withdrawing from league competition in 2016. Just this week, an additional Youth team (Aberdeen Roughnecks) have withdrawn from competition too. Here’s how the pyramid in Scotland now looks: four youth teams, feed two junior teams, which feed seven senior teams.
Across the UK, that scales up to 37 Youth teams, feeding 24 Junior teams, feeding 64 senior teams. On top of that we have a few small pockets where there are additional community teams (Highland and Bristol community leagues for example) but the best and keenest players from these structures have a pathway into the national leagues through the affiliated club teams. In many places, there is no possibility for young people to get involved in our sport without unworkable levels of travel to training and games, meaning that a huge number of the new entrants to our sport will first experience kitting up when they attend a University with a club, or when they are old enough to play adult football.
Now there’s nothing wrong with starting playing football later, from a participation standpoint – I grew up unaware the sport existed in the UK and didn’t try the sport out for the first time until I was 21 – but if we want the quality level of the sport to rise and we have any real ambition of producing the required talent to fuel the GB squads which are competitive in Europe and potentially even to place players at high schools and colleges in the US to give them even a shadow of a chance of building a college or professional career through it, then starting at 18 is years too late. In addition, the difference between two players of equal athletic potential, one who starts playing at 14 years old and the other who starts at 18, are massive!
One of the major gripes that people have about playing our sport is the travelling time, distance and cost, particularly in the playoffs. For those of you playing senior football, consider the situation for the Youth (14-17) teams who are spread even more widely across the UK, have much smaller squads because of the reduced numbers of the playing format, are comprised of young people who are largely in education rather than work thus reducing their ability to meet the costs and who have parents who object to them travelling 5 hours either way on a Sunday when they have homework to do and exams to prepare for. The cost of a bus for u17s is typically the same as the cost for adults, and when you hire a smaller bus, the cost per head tends to go up, because a big part of the hire cost is the driver’s wages which are the same regardless of vehicle. That should go some way to outlining the increasingly difficult situation that those who run our Youth teams are in, and which gets worse with every team that folds.
At the Junior age group (16-19), many local authorities do not offer discounts for training facility hire because the age brackets mean that a lot of the players are classed as adults. This means running a team, with the costs of a senior team, a smaller squad to cover those costs, a squad containing many players who are not in employment, and at the end of it all, offering them a 6-game season, rather than the 10-game season that is offered at senior. For this reason, it is no wonder that there are many teams who offer Youth and Senior only, forgoing the ‘missing year’ where players are too old for Youth and too young for Junior, because the challenges of running a team make sustaining a Junior team unmanageable.
Why should we care?
And yet, the benefits of creating and running Youth and Junior teams are huge! Even for the most senior-focused player/coach/administrator, there can be no denying that the earlier we can expose our players to the sport and to good coaching and S&C practices, the more chance there is of these players becoming really good at it! And if it’s a choice between an 18 year old approaching you on rookie day who is brand new to the sport and one who has experience playing it and knows the demands, the rules and the positional requirements, which coach would take someone raw who might flee at first contact? By having a strong Youth and Junior setup as part of your organisation, you can start to build a pipeline of players who understand your ethos, how to train with purpose, what you expect from them and how to play the game. When a player steps up from Youth to Junior or Junior to Senior and all they have to do is change the account that their standing order pays into and attend practice at a different time, and everything else is steady; it’s a great experience and the stability can help them focus on the sport.
On top of that, it’s a lot of fun! In coaching Youth and Junior, you have the chance to shape the lives of young people and give them the opportunity to try something that you love. I never had the chance to play the sport in my youth, but as an adult, it has brought so much to my life. Being able to give that gift to young people is a huge honour, especially for those who may lack focus or the ability to excel in other areas of their lives. When players or their parents and guardians come to you and tell you that you and your team have had a real impact on that player’s life, or that practice is their favourite time of the week, there are few feelings like it.
As it stands, the sport in this country is growing in the University and Women’s levels and in the Senior game (although that tends to be a some-in-some-out situation every year as teams fold and new ones are born), but the Youth and Junior game remain in a perilous state, and very little has been done to address this. One green shoot has been the creation of the Schools Development role, currently being undertaken by Rob Brooksby. It makes absolute sense that the core of buiding our sport at the u18 levels should be by finding ways to integrate it into existing school sport, but we are far from that right now, and if we wait for that to happen, then a whole generation of young people will miss the chance to get into American Football before they attend University or turn 18.
Every lost Youth and Junior team makes it harder for a new team to enter the league. Every year where we neglect the sport at the lowest age levels, is a year where we lose potential talent at the top of the pyramid. We cannot, as a sport, sit back and watch Youth and Junior crumble into nothing, because the more dilapidated this situation becomes, the harder it will be to recover.
One of the biggest challenges I foresee is deciding who has responsibility for overcoming these challenges. The creation of a more robust foundation for our sport stands to benefit the University, Women and Senior teams, by driving up participation and thus quality, therefore it’s only fair that they should play their part in the resolution of these issues, but this is a problem for all of us.