Youth Football Rules … There for a Reason

youth football rulesYouth football rules have been in place for years and depending on what locale you live in they can change often. Most changes are focused on safety these days, a constant focus on making the game safer.

If you’ve listened at all to the commentary around rules changes, particularly in the NFL, you’ll recall some of what I am going to touch on here. NFL players say “I can’t change the way I play.” You would think that as talented and as physically fit as these players are it wouldn’t be that hard for them, they are professionals after all.

In fact, how they were taught, and what they’ve always been allowed to do, is a huge obstacle; and yes, it is extremely difficult for them to change their game. This is why I think that coaching kids right at the youth level is critical for the safety of the game. Rules at the youth level have to reflect what will be expected of players as they get older.

Coaches should obviously know the rules if they are going to coach their players and manage games. Luckily, every league I’ve been associated with as a player, coach, parent, or grandparent has had coaching clinics prior to the season to cover the rules.

Unfortunately, I have NEVER been associated with a league that offered any kind of clinic for parents. I think this is a mistake. The more Mom and/or Dad know, the more they can reinforce what the coach is trying to teach. And the more relevant oversight and accountability they can assert with the coach.

That said, there are key areas that parents should know about.

Referees Need Love Too

I am NOT kidding! Our expectations of referees at the youth level are phemonimal! Parents and Coaches alike can go absolutely nuts when they see a call that a referee misses. Yes, the referees are fallible. No, they are not blind. Yes, they miss calls. No, they do not deserve to be strung up.youth football rules

Let me explain. The highest level of American Football referees is the NFL. To be selected to work at that level referees have to have at least 10 years experience–5 of those years at the Division I level, successfully complete multiple initial and ongoing training sessions. And at this level they get paid about $175k p/year, part-time. They still miss calls every week, some say every game, still others say every play. And they maintain 7 referees on the field, plus a host of support and backup referees.

Conversely, a youth football referee team general consists of 2, maybe 3 referees, whose only experience is having played the game themselves and a 3 hour referee clinic and they get paid $25-$50 a game depending on the area. Youth football referees are leaving the game in droves due to verbal, even physical abuse at times, from Coaches and Parents. These men and women pay their own money to get certified, they pay their own way to and from games, and they barely get paid enough to make it worth their while. All while, trying to keep 22+ 6-12 y/o’s in line. And they do this with a crew that is a third of the size of an NFL crew which is constantly missing calls.

Give the referees a break. Most of the calls they make are blatant violations or safety focused. Missed calls are a part of the game. And even if a call costs your child’s team the game, no one is served well by verbally abusing a referee.

Basic Rules

The governing bodies of youth football leagues vary by state and even locale, and all of these bodies do not follow the exact same rules, they do generally look pretty close to one another.

  • Quarters are 10 minutes(can be as short as 6 or 8 minutes depending on age), with a continually running clock until the last minute of a half
  • Half-time is 15 minutes
  • 11 players on each side for every play
  • A minimum of 2 referees on the field for a game
  • Each team must have at least 16 players (11 playing and 5 subs)
  • A touchdown is 6 points and they run/pass for 2 point conversions

Generally each state adopts a set of playing rules to govern their football programs. From there difference leagues, school districts, conferences will add rules, usually regarding conduct and how that is dealt with.

If you really want to delve into the rules for your specific league, trust me, your team’s Coach can point you in the right direction. Coaches generally have to go through at least one training session on rules and rule changes prior to the opening of the season.

Governing Bodies

The United States as a whole actually has a couple of very prominent governing bodies, however there are no requirements to join them. Some states have simply formed their own and that is what they form their leagues around. Rules of actual football games are adhered to, but conduct, weight limits, age limits, controls, coach certification, and many of the things that surround the game are localized.

In bigger communities it can be somewhat easier to pull coaches, referees, and team parents to help support teams and leagues personally and financially. But in smaller, more rural communities, it is common to have leagues run by a handful of coaches and parents. Both of these scenarios can have serious flaws, and lead to no real governing bodies.

My point with this section is that without parental oversight these leagues can quickly run amuk. Only the coach’s son plays quarterback. The coaches are all best friends. The parents who pay, make sure their kids play. Rules only matter for the teams from outside the “inner circle”. Coach Certification is an online course every 3 years–oops, that is a known problem.

Coaching Certifications

In today’s society we often times assume that “the powers that be” are doing the right thing. We give leaders the benefit of the doubt. And for goodness sake, football has been around so long, of course they are professionals and do things right.

That is not an attitude worthy of a responsible parent, especially with all we know about the sport today. Coaches need to be coached and managed too. They need to know proper technique so they can teach proper technique. They need to know the rules. They need to show respect for referees. Coaches need leadership, ie. formal certification and oversight. In football, just like real life, everybody needs a boss–someone to hold them accountable.



I realize I have not given you a specific list of youth football rules here, that’s because it is pretty much impossible. Depending on where you live, right down to which town you live in, your rules can vary. You really have to get those from the specific league you are interested in, most have them posted online these days.

My real focus here has been to help you understand that the big rules of football games are pretty much the same at all levels. The real difference at the youth level is certifications and training for referees and COACHES. And to help you understand that by and large these folks are just other folks like you who are interested in the game at the youth level.

PARENTS have to call the shots. Insist on Coach certification. Keep the game safe for your kids, so your kids can enjoy the game.youth football rules





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9 Comments on “Youth Football Rules … There for a Reason”

  1. Nice article Skip.

    Rules are in place for reasons. Youth Football should be no different. Rules provide structure, and besides adding to safety, kids learn from rules about what is proper behavior.

    I agree about the referees. We should be praising these people instead of screaming at them. It is a tough job and while they can be paid, they don’t do it for the money. It is always a labor of love for them.

    Thanks for your work on this.

  2. This is so interesting. Of course I know there are a lot of rules in football (as there should be), but I never really thought about how coaches, parents and referees really all have to work together to enforce the rules.

    I love your idea of having coaches do through training every so often and to have a governing body that oversees everything. Maybe that would make youth football a little more fair for everyone.

    P.S. In my next life, I’m coming back as an NFL referee. I didn’t realize they had such a great salary!! Then again, I’m sure they suffer plenty of abuses from angry fans and coaches that warrant that amount of income.

  3. Coach certification sounds like a good idea, but you have to remember, most of these coaches are volunteers, who are already short on time.
    I know where I live, youth football isn’t really popular, even though we live in Pittsburgh.
    Hockey seems to be taking more and more players off the field and on to the ice. But football is a school sport, while hockey is privately run. Who loses? The kids whose parents can’t afford hockey.

    1. Jim, the “time” issue is real I know, being a coach at the youth level today is a huge commitment, bigger than most coaches realize. The Xs and Os of football are easy compared to all the other aspects of the game. And you are right, money is always an issue. But the need remains, so how do we deal with it? This is why parents matter in this equation.

  4. Wow. I didn’t know that youth football rules were different than NFL rules, etc. It is very important to keep kids safe. Referees and coaches definitely need to be well trained in order to keep the kids safe in youth football.

  5. Thanks for this great post Skip. I can so relate to you suggesting there should be a clinic for parents, so they can reinforce what the coaches are trying to teach the children. Having been, not a football coach, but a primary school teacher for years, I often wished for this in schools too!

    1. Luna, I’m big believer in the BIG job of being a parent and being involved. But the reality is we have lots of single parent families, both parents working, and multiple other special “situations” that do not allow for the type of adult involvement that our kids need. Like you, I’m not sure what the answer is, only what the need is.

  6. I agree that they should use the same rules, teach the same rules to the young football players, who will someday become college and pro athletes. You would think, as you say, that the pro players could change their game when needed. I don’t know why they would not be able to. They are certainly making enough money to play by the rules and correctly. I am a huge football fan…well the Dallas Cowboys. So I try to learn and know all I can about the game.

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