A love for this classic American sport comes down to the basics. Get yourself and your little rookie pumped up for football season by learning the positions, rules and key terms you both need to know before sending your MVP to the line of scrimmage.
The experts at Academy Sports + Outdoors created this guide to teach you the basic rules and help you find the proper gear to keep your aspiring young football player protected during every play. We'll also go over a few easy ways you can support your playmaker from the sidelines so they can create great memories and safe habits that will last a lifetime.
Use this guide to learn:
Ready to get started? Hut, Hut, Hike!
Football can seem complicated, especially to a complete beginner. With so many rules and regulations applied to various positions and plays, it can be overwhelming to learn from scratch. Start with a few basics about the rules of football to better understand what's going on when your child takes the field:
In professional and college level football games, there are four 15-minute quarters. Little league or youth participant football games are broken into four 8-minute or 10-minute quarters, determined by league and by age. There are frequent stops and starts, however, so don't expect that a game will ever last just the allotted time per quarter. In fact, the clock often stops at different times, for different reasons between each play (with a few exceptions).
Here are some other basic timing terms to keep in mind:
Timeouts: Each team gets three timeouts per half.
Halftime: Halftime is an extended break in play that comes after the second quarter.
Overtime: If both teams are tied at the end of the fourth quarter, there may be an overtime period. The rules for overtime, or no overtime, vary by league. In the pros, each team must have the opportunity to possess the ball at least once in overtime, unless the team that gets the ball first scores a touchdown on their first drive. After the initial possessions, all scores are "sudden death," which means the game will end when the next points are made. Generally, if the Pee Wee league uses OT, it utilizes the ten yard overtime procedure in which both teams have the opportunity to score from the 10 yard line. If, after this, both teams are tied, the game ends in a draw (except for playoffs). Overtime and other timing rules will vary by school and state, so check with your child's league for specific regulations.
Touchdown: 6 points. An offensive player breaks the plane of the opposing team's goal line and makes it into the end zone with the football.
Point After Try (PAT): 1 or 2 points. Following a touchdown in all levels but the professionals, the ball is placed at the defense’s 2-yard line and the offense may attempt to score one point by kicking the ball through the uprights. Or, the offense can try for two points by running or passing the ball into the end zone instead.
Field Goal: 3 points. A kicker drives the football through the goal posts behind the opposing team's end zone.
Safety: 2 points. If a member of the offensive team is tackled with the ball in his own end zone, fumbles the ball out of the end zone, or another offensive player commits a holding penalty in the end zone, then 2 points are given to the defensive team for a safety and receives the ball in a free kick.
During each possession, the offensive team has four chances (also called downs) to move the ball forward at least 10 yards. If they are able to move the ball forward 10 yards, then a first down is earned and they'll have four more chances to move forward another 10 yards. If they are unable to move the ball forward 10 yards after the fourth down, then possession of the ball is surrendered to the other team at the same spot on the field.
On a fourth down, the offensive team can "go for it" and try to convert their yards into another first down, but they could risk giving the opposing team good field position if they fail and turn the ball over too close to their own end zone. The second option is to punt or kick the ball to the other end of the field so the opposing team has to travel farther on the next drive.
Like most sports, American football has its own unique vocabulary and special lingo you may have never heard before. Use this list to learn what each word, term and acronym means before the whistle blows.
This means that the quarterback changes the play at the line of scrimmage in the final moments before the snap, based on how he sees the defense line up on the field. He calls out the play change at the line of scrimmage after everyone is already lined up for the next play. To counter the offense, the middle linebacker can also call an audible and change the defensive formation.
A defensive tactic aimed at disrupting the play. In blitzing situations, more defensive players than normal will rush the offensive backfield in an attempt to stop the play behind the line of scrimmage. This comes in two ways, tackling the quarterback before he can execute a pass or hurry him into throwing a bad pass, or stuffing a running play before the ball carrier can execute his assignment..
A set of downs is the number of chances an offense gets to move the ball forward at least 10 yards. Offenses have four chances, or downs, to advance the ball at least 10 yards. If they succeed, they earn another first down and can try moving the ball another 10 yards. If they fail, possession of the ball is surrendered, which is called a "turnover on downs.
Located at each end of the field, the end zone is the rectangular area the ball must break into in order to score a touchdown. The ball can be thrown, carried or reached across the goal line of the end zone whichresults in a touchdown.
After a touchdown, a team can try to earn an extra point by kicking the ball through the uprights of the goal posts. They can also attempt to earn a 2-point conversion after a touchdown (see Two-Point Conversion).
A field goal is worth 3 points and made by kicking the ball between the opponent's uprights, above the crossbar of the goal posts. A team will often try a field goal when they're within scoring range on fourth down but failed to reach the end zone.
Fumbling means that the player with possession loses the ball before being downed or scoring. Either team can recover a fumbled football.
Slang for a North American football field, named for the grid-like way the lines are painted.
An interception occurs when a defensive player catches the ball from the quarterback, rather than the intended receiver. After an interception, the intercepting team gets possession of the ball, a fresh set of downs, and can attempt to advance it to their opponent's goal.
The kickoff initiates play at the start of each half and after most scoring plays. The kicking team will kick the ball away from their end zone and toward the receiving team's goal. Once a receiving player touches the ball, the clock will start and they will attempt to advance the ball back to their opponent's end zone.
A lateral, also known as a lateral pass or backwards pass, occurs when a ball carrier throws the football to a teammate who is the same distance or farther away from the line of scrimmage.
An offside is a type of foul in football lingo, and it results in a 5-yard penalty and a replay of the previous down. When a defensive player is offside, they have crossed into the offensive side of the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped and the play begins.
A punt is an offensive play used when the team trying to score decides that getting a first down, touchdown or field goal is unlikely, and they want to move the line of scrimmage away from their own goal line. On fourth down, the offense will punt the ball toward the opposing team's end zone so they have to travel further to score after the turnover on downs.
Rushing means something different for offenses and defenses. Offensive rushing plays, or carries, involve running with the ball from the line of scrimmage, rather than throwing or kicking it. Defensive players can also rush, or charge toward, the ball handler in an attempt to tackle, intercept or otherwise break-up a play.
A sack is a tackle of the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage before they hand off or pass the ball to a rusher or receiver.
Safeties are both a position and a type of defensive scoring play. Skip to our section on The Xs and Os to learn more about the safety position.
• The defense can score a safety, worth 2 points, under these circumstances:
• The ball carrier is tackled in his own end zone.
• The ball carrier is forced or loses the ball out of bounds in his own end zone.
• The offense commits certain fouls in their own end zone.
Line of Scrimmage
The line of scrimmage is where each play begins, technically starting from the end of the ball pointing toward the end zone.
Also known as a hike, snapback, or pass from center, a snap is the backwards transfer of the football from the center to a skills player like the quarterback at the line of scrimmage.
The act of downing a player or ball carrier to prevent forward progress.
Issued after two yellow cards or for a strong enough foul determined by the referee, a red card ejects a player from the rest of the game for excessive misconduct. Red and yellow cards likely won't be used at the beginner level, but you'll want to teach your kids the penalty rules along with appropriate conduct on the field to prepare them early on.
When the ball becomes dead on or behind your goal line and the opposing team put it there, it's called a touchback. Touchbacks most often occur when a ball is punted into or beyond the receiving team's end zone and the receiver takes a knee rather than running it out. Touchbacks result in a fresh set of downs for the receiving team from their 20-yard line.
Teams score touchdowns by carrying the ball across the opposing team's goal line, or by catching a thrown football inside the end zone.
A turnover happens when one team surrenders possession of the ball to their opponents. Turnovers can occur on downs, fumbles or interceptions.
After a touchdown, the offense can attempt to earn 2 additional points by passing or running the ball into the end zone a second time. At all levels, but the National Football League (NFL), 2-point conversions are attempted from the 2-yard line.
Think of a yellow card as a warning from the referee for A yard is the preferred unit of measurement in North American football. The football field stretches 100 yards between goal lines, and 53 1/3 yards between sidelines. The end zones are also 53 1/3 yards wide and extend 10 yards back from the goal line to the end line.
At any point during a game, there are 11 players on the field for each football team. Each player requires unique skills that align with the responsibilities of their position. Learn the fundamental skills and responsibilities for each position so you can support your child when they're assigned a role.
The offense's job is to score. Key offensive positions include:
5 Offensive Linemen
The offensive line protects the quarterback and running backs from defenders. Offensive linemen include the center (who snaps the ball to a skill position at the beginning of each play), two offensive guards and two offensive tackles – all of whom block defenders.
6 Backs and Receivers
Quarterback: Quarterbacks, or QBs, are often considered the most important player on the offense because they communicate the intended play to the rest of the team and have the power to change the play call based on what the defense shows when they line up. After taking the snap from the center, the QB can hand the ball off to the running back, throw it to a receiver, or carry the ball forward himself.
Running Back: Depending on the play, a team can line up as many as three running backs on the field. Depending on where they line up, running backs can act as ball carriers, blockers or receivers.
Wide Receiver: Receivers primarily look for openings to catch the ball and run with it. On rushing plays, wide receivers may also be responsible for blocking defenders downfield. They get their name because they usually line up wide (on the outside of the offensive line) and are eligible to receive passes.
Tight End: Tight ends are usually considered hybrid players because their role blends the characteristics of both wide receivers and offensive linemen. Tight ends tend to be bigger than receivers so they can block well, but they are also eligible to receive passes.
It's the defense's job to keep the other team from scoring. The key defensive positions fall under three main categories of players. The specific formation of a defensive line will vary by team (and even by play), but it will include some combination of the following positions:
Defensive Linemen (3-4 Players)
Also called rushers, these players line up directly on the line of scrimmage mirroring the offensive linemen. There are two key defensive linemen positions:
Defensive Tackle: One to two tackles line up in the center of the defensive line and are responsible for rushing the passer and stopping any running plays coming through the line of scrimmage. These players also keep offensive linemen occupied so linebackers can better see and attack the ball carrier.
Defensive End: Two defensive ends play next to the defensive tackles on either side. The ends are also responsible for stopping offensive runs and attacking the passer.
Nose Tackle/Guard: This is the most interior defensive lineman who sometimes lines up directly across from the ball, and therefore almost nose-to-nose with the offense’s center. They are most commonly used in a 3-4 defense.
Linebackers (3-4 Players)
The role of a linebacker will vary based on the situation, but there are two key positions:
Middle Linebacker: Often known as the "quarterback of the defense" or “mike linebacker,” middle linebackers are sometimes responsible for communicating defensive play calls to the rest of the defense, stopping running backs who have gotten as far as the defensive line, covering pass plays, rushing the quarterback and more. They must be able to think on their feet and react quickly to a number of situations.
Outside Linebacker: These players are primarily responsible for outside containment of tight ends and running backs, as well as rushing and blitzing the quarterback. Strongside linebackers line up on the stacked side of the line to stop the ball carrier on running plays or focus on coverage or rushing the quarterback on passing plays. Weakside linebackers tend to focus on pass coverage, but are also responsible for stopping the run or rushing the quarterback.
Defensive Backs (4-6 Players)
These players line up outside and behind the linebackers to defend against pass or running plays. There are generally two types of defensive backs:
Cornerback: Cornerbacks line up outside the linebackers and defend against passes by attempting to bat the ball away or catch it themselves. On rushing plays, cornerbacks are responsible for tackling or chasing the runner out of bounds.
Safety: As their name implies, safeties are the last line of defense and tend to line up the farthest away from the line of scrimmage. This position can be further divided into strong and free safeties. Strong safeties are another hybrid position, charged with covering the pass and stopping the run, while free safeties tend to roam the field, watching for an opportunity to break up, stop or intercept long passes.
At the end of the day, the protective gear your child wears on the field is one of the most important things you will consider. The best youth football equipment is designed to protect kids' bodies from powerful hits, dives, collisions and just plain clumsiness so they can safely keep playing for years to come.
You should always check with your child's coach, team or league to find out if any gear or accessories will be provided
and learn about the requirements or regulations for any equipment you purchase yourself.
Use this checklist to make sure you have everything else your prospective Pro Bowler needs for their first practice. Then, keep reading to get more information on how to select the best football equipment for your kid and the specific position they play.
▢ Uniform jersey
▢ Uniform pants
▢ Practice jersey
▢ Practice pants
▢ Heavy-duty football socks
▢ Football cleats
▢ Compression shorts or pants
▢ T-shirts to wear under shoulder pads during practice
▢ Sports slides to put on after practice
▢ Football gloves
▢ Cold-weather compression clothes
▢ Football girdle
Choosing the Best Football Gear for Your Kid
It's the defense's job to keep the other team from scoring. The key defensive positions fall under three main categories of players. The specific formation of a defensive line will vary by team (and even by play), but it will include some combination of the following positions:
The helmet is one of the most important pieces of equipment in football. Given the force of collisions
and tackles, especially as players get older, it's critical
to protect your kid's noggin.
Sizing Youth Football Helmets
When choosing the proper helmet, make sure there is no space between your child's helmet and their temple. Look for excellent shock absorption and comfortable protection. Then, find a facemask that matches the helmet and position your child plays.
• Quarterbacks, Defensive Backs and Wide Receivers:
Oral protection only.
• Running Backs and Tight Ends: Jaw and oral protection.
• Receivers: Nose and oral protection.
• Linemen: Nose, jaw and oral protection.
• Other players: Eyeglass and oral protection.
For more information about choosing the right helmet for your child, check out our Football Helmets and Sizing Guide.
Like the helmet, shoulder pads also protect your child from possible injuries during tackles, hard collisions and pileups. Properly fitting shoulder pads will absorb and distribute the shock from these hits to keep your kid unharmed on every play.
Sizing Youth Shoulder Pads
The type of shoulder pads you choose will ultimately come down to the position your child plays, but all football pads should completely cover the following areas on the body:
• Clavicles, also known as collarbones
• Shoulder joints
• Deltoids (all the way to the outer edge)
• Scapulae, also known as shoulder blades
The pads you choose should also include these three basic features:
• A comfortable neck opening that won't restrict movement.
• Adequate space on each side of the neck roll when yout player raises their hands.
• A secure fit that won't slip once tightened.
For more information about choosing the right pads for your child and the position they play, check out our Shoulder Pads Guide.
LOWER BODY PADS
Underneath their uniform, your child should also be wearing thigh, tailbone, hip and knee pads to protect them while they play. With these pads perfectly in place, your child can play in confidence with less fear of getting injured.
You can often find youth football pants that include strategically placed protective pads for an easy on/off fit. At Academy, we offer a wide selection of leg pads to offer a more customized, supportive fit. This equipment easily snaps onto or fits into your child's football pants or girdle, giving them the support they need on the field.
Find a 7-piece set to get all the lower body support your player needs, including:
• 2 hip pads
• 2 thigh pads
• 2 knee pads
• 1 tailbone pad
The right cleats will offer incredible support, traction and agility on the field. Learn about common football cleat features to find out which style is right for your little player.
Football cleats are designed in low-, medium- and high-cut styles. Typically, the only difference in these styles is the amount of ankle support and level of mobility you have.
• High-cut cleats lace up all the way to the ankle to provide the snuggest, most supportive fit. Since the added bulk can weigh your child down, we recommend this style for offensive and defensive linemen.
• Mid-cut cleats are looser and lower than high-cut cleats for easy maneuvering with a good amount of ankle support. We recommend this style for running backs, linebackers, cornerbacks and rushing quarterbacks.
• Low-cut cleats offer lightweight support for better agility and speed. We recommend this style for positions that need to cover the field quickly, including wide receivers, tight ends and free safeties.
Ask about your league's specific rules and regulations regarding spikes before making a decision. Youth football teams generally require plastic, molded spikes, since they are safer and easier to use. As your child gets older, they may wear detachable spikes for greater traction, durability and reliability on the field.
• Molded Spikes are permanently attached to the shoe to provide solid traction on the field. Since they tend to be cheaper, ready to wear and safer to use, youth leagues and casual players typically choose this style.
• Detachable Spikes are longer and stronger than molded spikes are. You can remove, replace, or switch out each spike depending on position or playing conditions. Since they offer greater precision during plays, advanced high school players, college teams and professionals almost always choose this style.
To learn how to find the proper fit, choose the right spikes and keep your cleats clean all season long, check out our Football Cleats and Accessories Guide.
Practices can be brutal, especially if you don't have
a kit of essential supplies and extra gear for your little athlete. Here's a list of things you need to bring with
you to every practice:
• Water and low-sugar fluids that are high in electrolytes
• Bandages and a first aid kit
• Extra shoe laces
• Extra socks
• Hand towel (skill players often tuck a small towel in their waistband to dry their hands between plays)
• Slides to wear before and after practice
• A light jacket for cool evenings after practice
Sometimes, your little player won't be motivated to get to practice. To get them excited, we recommend taking them to their favorite
hangout spot after practice, like the playground or frozen yogurt shop, or even invite their team to come over for a get-together at your place afterward.
On game day, show your support for your favorite player in style. Along with the practice essentials listed above, bring this gear with you so you're prepared to have fun and make some noise in the stadium:
• Sweet treats and other rewards
• A blanket to sit on or wrap up in
• Stadium seats, portable chairs or seat pads
• Funny signs
• Noise makers
• Foam fingers
• Face paint
• Silly string (for after the game)
Check your league's noise regulations to make sure loud noisemakers like air horns or cowbells are permitted before you hit the field.
There's nothing more motivating to a child than letting them see your support and enthusiasm. Here are some tips to help you encourage your child before, during and after games and practice.
Let the Coach Coach
Trust that your child's football coaches know what they're doing and what's best for every player on the team. Let them do their job, even if you don't exactly agree with their commands.
Coaches help children learn discipline, teamwork, respect and humility, and even how to safely take care of their bodies – that's a tall order. If you have concerns and want to speak to the coach, keep cool and do it privately after the practice or game has ended. That way, you won't embarrass your child or their coach by coming onto the field, yelling advice or otherwise overdoing it from your seat. Make sure you check with the league for rules involving contact with coaches, as many have some kind of moratorium for contact with a coach.
Show your child that some key lessons from football transfer into other aspects of life. Being respectful, winning with modesty, losing with style and working together are just some of the things your MVP will learn as they start playing. Work these lessons into your daily life to help your child see how they apply on and off the field.
Football is known for bringing families together. Make it even more of a family event by playing catch with your star player in the backyard, or use a few fun and simple football drills to spend some quality time making memories.
Here are some of our favorite football drills you can do with your child from the comfort of your own yard:
• Running ladders
• Catching and throwing games
• 20 Yard Dash: Place markers throughout the yard where your child has to perform certain tasks, like successfully catching three footballs, doing 15 jumping jacks, and more!
We've heard them all. Now you can learn the answers to some of the football questions you might have been too afraid to ask before! If you don't find an answer to your particular question, call or head over to your local Academy and one of our helpful team members will be happy to assist you.
"Can someone please explain how to get my kid's football helmet off and on?"
Pull. Hard. That is, in fact, the normal tactic for getting a football helmet off. A narrowing toward the bottom of the helmet makes it uncomfortable to squeeze past the larger top of the head, but if you can get it on, you can get it off.
Slide the helmet on with its crown pointed backward at a 45-degree angle. Then you can pull the helmet down over the ears by using your
forefingers in the helmet's earholes and your thumbs on the bottom and pull out to widen the space. Use the same tactic to remove. If all else
fails, the pads below the ears can pop off to make it easier to free your little tyke from his doomed dome.
"What does the quarterback say to the team before the snap? What does it all mean?!"
Some of what the quarterback says at the line of scrimmage before the snap is to help his team. He will point out certain players or positions so the entire offensive line will know who they're supposed to block or where they're supposed to run. The QB can also call an audible to change the play call at the line of scrimmage based on what he sees. Sometimes, the QB will change the play entirely. Other times, he may just change the direction of the play.
This final point is the most important for parents to know: Some of what the QB says is, in fact, nonsense. In the huddle, the quarterback gives his team a "snap count" so they know when the ball will be hiked. The snap count will vary to keep the defense off-balance, which the QB can use to his advantage in an attempt to pull the defense offside.
"Why is a 'safety' both a player and a play?"
Honestly, we like to think it's because the rule makers ran out of words!
Just remember that the safety position is the last line of defense for his team. The safety watches the field to track down passes and keep the other team from scoring.
Check out our glossary above for more information on the defensive scoring play called a safety.
"Is football really a safe sport?"
Yes – as long as you're wearing the right protective gear. Make sure your child is fitted with the best football helmet, pads and gear for his or her size and position by checking online or asking the coach or league what type of equipment is recommended for safe play.
"How many people can line up on the line of scrimmage?"
Each team must have 11 players on the field at all times. On offense,there must be at least seven players on the line of scrimmage and no more than four players behind them. On defense, there is no rule about where players have to line up, as long as they are lined up on their side of the line of scrimmage.
"How can I keep my child's gear from smelling?"
Properly cleaning and caring for your child's football equipment is essential to making them last all season long. Check the manufacturer's instructions for the recommended cleaning processes and products to use with each piece of your child's gear.
However you do it, we recommend gently cleaning off equipment after every game. At the least, you should aim to clean and completely dry gear once a week to minimize odors all season long. Stock up on spray disinfectants to keep odor, sweat and bacteria from building up on helmets, pads, cleats and uniforms.
"Are there different football sizes based on age?"
Yes. Typically, the football gets larger as your child grows. Usually, your team will provide the correct football size for your child's age and league. But if your coach asks you to bring your own balls to practice or your tyke wants to toss a pigskin around the backyard, it's important to know which size to buy.
Pee Wee: 6-8 years
• Average Weight: 10 ounces
• Long Circumference: 23.5 inches
• Short Circumference: 17.25 inches
Junior: 9-12 years • Average Weight: 11 ounces
• Long Circumference: 24.5 inches
• Short Circumference: 18.5 inches
Youth: 12-14 years • Average Weight: 12.5 ounces
• Long Circumference: 25.88 inches
• Short Circumference: 19.38 inches
High School, College, and NFL: • Average Weight: 14-15 ounces
• Long Circumference: 27.75 to 28.5 inches
• Short Circumference: 20.75 to 21.125 inches
"How long do youth football games last?"
Game length depends on how old your player is. The younger the kids on the team, the shorter the quarters will typically last. If your kiddo is in the Pee-Wee league, games will usually last from 1 hour to 1 1/2 hours. High school games will run 2-3 hours, while college and professional games can take up to 3 1/2 hours to finish
"Do I need to stay the whole time?"
At practices, probably not. However, kids love seeing their parents supportively cheering them on from the sidelines at games. Attend practices and games as often as you can to support your player and their team all season long. If you can't make it as often as you'd like, find other ways to stay involved by offering to host team building events, coordinate fundraisers or help organize a booster group. Make sure you check with your little league for rules regarding parents at practice, as some require one parent to be on hand at all times.
"Why do teams have so many uniforms?"
Uniforms are all about unity! In football, there are specific uniforms for home games, away games and special events. In the NFL, whites are generally worn by the away team so they home team can show off their colors. Different leagues will have different requirements, but most little leagues have only one game-day uniform for each team. However, check with your team and/or league to make sure you have the right answer.
Football season is just getting started. Visit Academy Sports + Outdoors online or in store to grab all the gear and supplies to keep your future pro protected during every pass, catch, run and tackle. While you're here, grab some fun tailgating supplies to make the games even more enjoyable with coolers, stadium seats, jackets and more. We have everything you need to make this sport season memorable for all the MVPs in the family.