Of the nearly 500,000 youth football coaches in the United States, almost all are men. Last year, USA Football, the governing body for football in the U.S., started the "Coach Mom" project, to get more women involved in coaching the sport. In Noblesville, Indiana, four women signed up for the challenge. One of those women is Corie Elkin.
HerGameLife reporter, Emily Cohen, sat down with Corie recently to discuss what it's like to coach youth football as a woman and her thoughts on the sport's biggest issue today, in both the NFL and youth leagues: concussions.
Emily: What made you decide to coach boys’ tackle football?
Corie: Well, as my son was getting a little bit older and playing sports predominantly led by males, I felt like our interests were going in different directions and I wanted to find a way to still connect with him.
E How old was he when you started coaching his football team?
C This was last year, so he was 8 years old and in 3rd grade. That was the first year for tackle in our league. I saw it as an opportunity to still be involved with my son in an extracurricular activity. I’m all about being outside, spending family time, and practices are two nights a week for two hours – at dinnertime! I thought it would be a cool way to have an out-of-the-ordinary family time. My husband was still going to be involved with practices and drills, too.
E Did you grow up playing sports?
C I did. I had the opportunity to play multiple sports at the high school level because I went to a smaller school in Iowa, so I played volleyball and tennis all the way through my senior year. Until my sophomore year of high school, I played softball and basketball too. So sports have always been a part of my life, ever since I was little.
E What about football?
C Yes, football, too! There hasn’t been a Thanksgiving Day that we haven’t had a family Turkey Bowl. And I grew up a Denver Broncos fan because I was born there; I grew up in Iowa, but lived in Colorado as a baby. I grew up with the ‘Orange Crush’ and we have family photos in the orange sweatshirts. In Iowa, my dad’s company always had annual trips to a Kansas City Chiefs game and of course, Big 10 football was big. I’m a University of Iowa grad and I went to every home game when I was there.
E Were you nervous about being a woman, a mom, coaching football?
C Yes, I felt nervous, but I'm not sure it was because I was a woman. It was an entirely new experience for me and that made me nervous. But it did cross my mind at the team meet-and-greet, 'How are the parents going to handle having moms coaching?' It was good that there were four of us coaching in the league -- two of us coached the Penn State Nittany Lions, and two women coached another team, the Indiana Hoosiers.
E: Do you think the parents questioned your coaching decisions more often than they would have if you had been a dad or another man?
C: The parents did question my assistant coach and I sometimes, but I can't say that was because we were women. It could have been because it was our first time coaching or it could have been because we were women. I did feel like we had to prove that we knew what we were doing in terms of where we put kids on the field, etc. But we were the ones who saw them in practice, so we did have a better sense of their skills, whether we were women or men!
E: What training did you go through to become a coach?
C: USA Football has a well-defined training program. First, you do a 5-hour training session that’s in a classroom environment for your age level; at that time, I was U-8. They give you a handbook and go through practice management, drills, and so on in the classroom. Then, there’s live, hands-on experience where you get to go through the drills with the teachers to help you understand how to implement them in your practice. We did that in a single Saturday. Then you also have to take a couple of different certification courses online, which cover rules. After each chapter, you take a quiz and you have to score 80 percent or above to pass.
E: And the training is all age-specific, right?
C: Yes. All coaches who want to be certified by USA Football have to take the general certification course. And then you also have to take an age-specific one, which goes through the appropriate drills for the age that you’re coaching. You’re obviously not going to teach a 14-year-old how to tackle and get down in a 3-point stance the same way you would with an 8-year-old.
E: What about safety issues? Concussions and heat exhaustion are two biggies that come to mind. What training do coaches receive in terms of safety?
C: USA Football really takes player safety to heart and is training coaches in player safety. In terms of concussions, the big part is to limit the amount of contact that is involved. And the ‘Heads-up Football’ initiative is focused on teaching the right the way to tackle; you can practice the proper way to tackle without tackling anybody, so I think that’s the big idea. Plus, once a kid has a concussion, or you suspect he does, the whole mindset of ‘When in doubt, sit them out’. Don’t put them back out on the field unless they’ve been seen by a doctor.
E: Some people don’t feel that it’s appropriate for kids at age 8 or 9 to be tackling. What do you think, now that you’ve been trained as a coach and have coached a season?
C: Well, first of all, my opinion is that a concussion can happen anywhere and everywhere. Obviously, the amount of contact is increased in football, so it’s more likely to happen in football. I guess I didn’t focus on that part with football being part of my growing up.
But, in coaching the 8 year olds, kids should not be having that level of contact at that age in practice. They need to learn the fundamentals to tackle, and there really should not be much contact involved in their practice time; the most contact they should have should be in the game that they’re preparing to play. And that’s what the NFL is doing too, from what I understand. Players hardly have much contact in their practice anymore. So at least you can eliminate some of the contact, but the exposure is there.
That’s what I think has kind of been the whole transition or shift of thinking in football. It used to be put your pads on and hit ‘em hard and basically smash and crash each other. I think that whole mentality is shifting because of what going on with the long-term effects of concussions. A lot of coaches at the youth football level think, ‘Well, I played so I know how to coach,’ and that’s not necessarily the way it works anymore.
[For more of Corie's opinions on concussions in youth tackle football, check her out on ESPN's "Outside the Lines".]
E: You’re not coaching this year and your son’s playing for someone else. Do you feel that coach is paying attention to the concussion issue? Do you think most coaches are, or do you see some that are not?
C: It’s interesting because my son was drafted onto a team coached by someone new to our area who happened to be USA Football-trained. He definitely follows the idea that the amount of contact should be limited, but I would have to say there are other coaches in our league that are scrimmaging too long for practice purposes.
E: Are parents doing anything about that? Do people come to you because they know you’ve coached and know the USA Football guidelines?
C: I’ve had a few conversations and I talk with people who maybe wouldn’t have approached me before. There have definitely been more conversations about it and what would be appropriate for the boys at their age.
E: You keep mentioning boys. Are there any girls in your league?
C: Yes, there are two girls playing in the league and both of them played last year as well. Some of the dads do make comments and I definitely let them know my opinion!
E: Comments like what?
C: They say things like, ‘You’re letting a girl hit you like that?’ It’s just the ignorance I can’t stand! But it’s going to take a while to get over that.
E: What was the best part about your coaching experience?
C: I think the environment that I created with the parents and the boys on my team that we were all in this together. At the end of the season, we had more moms on the field helping with drills than any other team!
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