Every football fan knows someone close to them who isn’t interested in the game, and for many guys it is their girlfriend or wife. Naturally, misunderstandings abound between football addicts and those who have no interest in the game. For instance, it can be difficult to defend one’s fanaticism to someone that has never fully experienced Redskins football—how can you explain visiting training camp in 100+ degree weather, going into a depressed slump when the Skins lose, and crying when they come away with a great win? Perhaps it is because of the devoted fans, or perhaps the complexity of the game piques their interest, but every now and then you find yourself with a cynic-turned-prospective-student who is willing to learn about football.
A quick note on why I’m writing this: In my life I have had four women—two of which who were my girlfriends—sit down with me on a Sunday afternoon with the intent of understanding the basics of the game. Through my experiences, I have come up with a system for teaching that works for me and seems to communicate concepts well to my friends. It is for this reason that this piece is titled “A Girlfriend’s Guide to Football”, but do not be fooled: I have seen many women who were wholly devoted to the game—and some of them have husbands who have no interest!
Football is not intrinsically a masculine activity to the exclusion of all women, and the more receptive men are to helping women understand the game, the more this will change with time. Use this brief guide as a strategy for communicating Football 101, and be sure to tailor it to your audience as necessary. My goal is always to have my student understand the basics and flow of the game first, after which they will (hopefully) always be able to turn on a match and understand what is going on.
So let us suppose that you have your wife-turned-student with you, ready to learn. The most important thing is to establish first exactly what is the point of football. When explaining, start as ‘big picture’ as possible and work from there into the details. The Object of the Game—to score points on offense and stop the other team on defense—though an obvious and sometimes boring explanation, is necessary for seeing the fine details later. Make sure that he or she understands what an offense and defense are and knows how a defense can stop an offense (which gives you a nice segue into explaining downs). Talk about the timing of the game: quarters, halves, and what each does to the progress of the game. Also be sure to explain the scoring system as simply as possible (don’t worry about safeties or two-point conversions yet). Keep everything as simple as possible—now is not the time to show off your extensive knowledge.
The next step is to get some basic vocabulary down with your aspiring expert. Without a few key words to build on, it will be nearly impossible to get any deeper into strategy or to talk about what’s happening and why. (Think about trying to teach someone a foreign language—a relative few basic words are all that is needed to lay a strong foundation. Advanced sentence structures and thoughts will come later, but all any visitor to a country needs to know is about a half-dozen phrases).
Football terminology is fairly precise and very useful once it is learned. Think about how helpful it is for you to walk into a room and hear that it’s “3rd and goal for the Skins on the 8—down by 6 with 1:03 to play.” You have heard everything you need to know about how crucial the next play is. This also makes it easier to teach more about the game later, since you can use packed language efficiently and circumvent describing each concept every time you use it.
Don’t let your student substitute terms! He or she might want to phrase things with other words to make sure they understand it—and for this purpose it is fine—but make sure they begin to use the right terminology as soon as possible. Some common “translations” I have heard are ‘try’ or ‘chance’ in place of ‘downs,’ and ‘stop’ or ‘hit’ in place of ‘tackle’ or ‘block.’ You are sure to encounter other substitutes, but try to get the correct terms functioning as soon as possible.
Here is a suggested crash course vocabulary list for teaching the basics of the game:
Run, rush, pass, completion, incompletion, interception, tackle, and block. These give you just about everything you will need to describe an average play in its entirety. Get these down first so that you can use them to communicate larger concepts.
Down, yardage to go, and field position. “1st down and 10 on their own 20”: Explain the significance of each component in that sentence and your student is half-way to understanding what happens on every play. Make sure that he or she can give you this formulation for any given play (quizzing them constantly throughout the game is the best method here, provided they have the patience for it). If each part is understood, then the flow of the game should become much clearer. This one takes a little while to start using fluently, but the sooner it is mastered the more it helps to move on to other things.
Line of scrimmage. This is a fairly simple concept to explain, and it is a very powerful tool for understanding why things sometimes happen the way that they do. Defining the line of scrimmage is crucial for understanding the effect of almost any penalty. It also explains what the offensive and defensive lines are doing, which (I’ve heard) is a very confusing matter to a newcomer.
Possession. This useful word helps to avoid awkward phrases such as “when the other team has the ball on offense” or “they get a chance to score.”
Punt, kick, and kickoff. There are three different ways that football teams use kicks, and they shouldn’t all be described with “kick” unless the context is clear. Your student should understand the function of each kind of kick and how it affects play.
Positions. Lastly, get a basic understanding of the positions in football. These can be broken down quite easily. The offense can simply be the quarterback, offensive line, running backs, and receivers for now. Explain each position by talking about what they do on the field. As long as you note that there are some exceptions to what you are describing (but that it’s nothing to worry about), your patient observer will start to see more than simply ‘a bunch of guys running around.’ Similarly, on defense, the players can be thought of as the defensive line, linebackers, and the defensive backs. Start by explaining what the defensive line does, how the linebackers support them (line-backers), and finish by describing what the backs do.
When watching the game, explain what happened after most plays. Describe what the down, yardage to go, and field position all were (or quiz them about it). Explain how and why the offense did what they did and how the defense was able to or not able to stop the play. Talk about good blocks, pressure on the quarterback, receiving routes, and who made the tackle. With a foundation of football language and with you as their guide, your observer will quickly pick up everything that is happening.
Finally, be a generous host. Those that seek to understand the game are showing that they are open to learning new things. If it’s a girlfriend or a wife, it means that they are happy that you are finding such satisfaction in this great sport and that they’d like to become a part of that world. Make sure that they feel comfortable asking about anything—knowing that there are no stupid questions—and be as helpful as possible in answering them. I’ve had some success in my teaching career—three confirmed fans including two girlfriends—so always be on the lookout for your next potential convert. If you show yourself to be a tireless teacher, you may find that your student has enough patience to pick up the basics and they may start to build up an appreciation for our glorious game.
— Daniel Coleman
Edit: This blog was archived in May of 2016 from our original articles database.It was originally posted by Daniel Coleman