Posted by: Jerry Norton | April 14, 2009

Youth Football Made Fun

With the youth football season around the corner, this may be a good time to talk about a unique youth football program that has caught the fancy of both parents and kids in northeast Florida.

As a former coach in two of the most competitive youth football programs available to youngsters – Pop Warner Football and Long Island Midget Football – I’ve had the opportunity to see, up close and personal, both the positive side and the negative side of such programs. However, it is not my intention in this writing to recount in specific detail either of those experiences.

Instead I want to share with you information about a unique, “player-friendly” youth football program that is growing by leaps and bounds here in Florida that focuses on fun, participation and skill development for all participants.

The program dubbed  Junior Development League Football, or JDL,  is an attractive alternative to highly adult-competitive youth programs typically available throughout the country and was developed to address the common issues that many young players and their parents in youth football struggle with.

The program is patterned in principle after the NFL’s Junior Development Program and while the implementation of this program is uniquely different, the guiding principles of the two programs are identical:

Make It Fun

Limit Standing Around

Everyone Plays

Teach Every Position to Every Participant

Emphasize the Fundamentals

Establish a Progression of Skill Development for Every Participant

Yell Encouragement, Whisper Constructive Criticism

Many experts agree that these should be the objectives of any quality, wholesome youth sports program but, unfortunately, insensitive and overly competitive adults often undermine these principles.

As I said earlier, Junior Development Football addresses the common “problem” situations so prevalent in youth football these days including insufficient playing time for all players, an overemphasis on winning, insensitive and abusive coaches and competitive mismatches.

JDL Mission and Goals

The mission of Junior Development  Football is to provide a safe and player-friendly environment, in which children can learn, play and enjoy the game of tackle football. Essential to the mission are:

Balanced competition

Full and equal participation

A unique coaching approach

 The goal of this innovative program is that every single participant has a positive and enjoyable playing experience regardless of skill or ability – an experience in which each player has the opportunity to develop new skills, gain confidence, and learn life – lessons regarding the importance of teamwork, responsibility, sportsmanship and discipline. Achieving this goal can encourage continued participation in the sport.


As is common in many youth programs, participating JDL players  are grouped according to age and weight but an additional factor – ability – is also a consideration in placing a player in a division. Divisions are established for comparable size, age and general skill level participants and each division consists of approximately 30-32 players each. 




Unlike most competitive youth football programs, the JDL age/weight guidelines are flexible  to reflect a player’s skill level and experience in addition to his size and age. The number of divisions varies depending upon total registrations and players are placed in divisions best suited for their age, weight and experience.

Several coaches are assigned to each division and coach all the players in that division. Players compete only against players in the same division in practices and games.

To prepare for the season, basic formations, common drills and fundamental techniques are taught in all divisions. Position stations for each of the major football positions provide instruction and drills for all players. Players are encouraged to play each position during practice and in games.

All players and coaches receive a JDL playbook containing the formations and plays that will be taught in each division. In addition, a daily detailed practice plan for each division is provided to all coaches.

During practice and during games, player match-ups are made that consider participants size and skill level to avoid physical mismatches. 

When players are prepared sufficiently to play a game – usually after the first month of practice – two teams are formed from the approximately 32 players in a division – 16 players per team. Game day rosters are created using special software to ensure competitive balance between teams and between opposing positions. A game is then played according to conventional youth football rules.

During the game, an offensive coach is on the field and coaches the offensive units for both teams. Similarly, a defensive coach is assigned to coach both defensive units. In this manner the coaches have no stake in which team wins and are able to focus on having each player play to the best of his ability. A sideline coach is assigned to rotate players in and out of the game ensuring total participation by all.

Once the game is over, no record of the outcome is kept because new teams will be formed from the 32 players the following week. The season consists of ten games played each Saturday with new teams made up each week. To accommodate this, players receive contrasting jerseys at the start of the season. Players wear the appropriate jersey depending on team assignment for that week.

Statistics such as yards gained and tackles made by each player as well as game highlights are kept and included in a weekly newsletter sent to players and parents. All games are played at the organization’s home field and require no travel.

Because “game day” team rosters are small (approximately 16 players),  playing time for each player is extensive. Rules require that player must start on either offense or defense in the first half. If a player is not a starter on offense in the first, he must start on offense in the second half.

The measure of success of the program is player enjoyment and player development. The JDL program has grown from 30 players to over 700 players in the nine years it has been offered. JDL has become the youth football program of choice for the children of NFL players here in northeast Florida.

Here’s what a few parents, including NFL quarterback Mark Brunell,  have to say about Junior Development Football:

Last year our son Jacob (age 7) played his first year of football in the Junior Development Program. Not only did he learn the fundamentals of the game, Jacob learned the importance of teamwork, sportsmanship and discipline. Most importantly, he had a lot of fun. I would highly recommend the Junior Development Program to any parent who wants to introduce the game of football to their child in the right way.

Mark Brunell--Jacksonville Jaguars

Coach Jerry,  

I’m sure you hear this all the time, but I wanted to share a few observations with you about your program.

Needless to say, you have created something special. I played competitive football for many years culminating with a 5 year run at the University Of California, Berkeley. In all of my years around football, I’ve never seen anything quite like your program.

My son is a very unique boy with many great strengths and several big challenges. When we started the season it was touch and go to say the least. In fact, he could barely get his helmet on because he said it hurt so badly. He doubted himself and his confidence was low. During that very difficult first week after it became clear that quitting was not an option and every week thereafter, I began to see a change. His coaches and teammates provided encouragement and inspiration, over and over again. He began to discover things about himself that he never thought he had. He learned that he was tough, disciplined, and mentally strong. He also learned what a guard was, how to tackle and what it felt like to score a touchdown as a running back.

Of anything we have done to build our son over the past several years, this has been the most impactful. Your dedication and commitment is indeed touching the lives of young people in very special ways. You are making a difference. For what you have done for my son, I will be forever indebted to you and his coaches. I don’t know if Austin will ever play football again, and I don’t care either way, but what I do know is that this experience has changed his life.

Thank you again. 

David Pillsbury






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