Youth football players are not more vulnerable to head hits in games if they take part in fewer contact drills during practices, a new study published in the Annals of Biomedical Engineering showed.
The study, conducted by researchers from the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences, comes amid a debate over how much practice is needed to prepare young players to protect themselves during games and to block and tackle in a safe way.
The study’s conclusion – that the amount of practice does not influence the number of head hits absorbed during games – might bolster calls to reduce the frequency of contact drills in youth football leagues. NFL, college and high school teams have already scaled back the number of contact drills in practices.
“The concern is if we don’t teach kids how to hit in practice, they’re going to get blown away in the games,” said Stefan Duma, who runs the School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences and is one of the co-authors of the study. “This shows you can dramatically cut the amount of exposure in practice and have no more exposure during the games.”
Last year, Pop Warner, a national organization through which hundreds of thousands of children participate in football, amended its safety guidelines, based in part on the medical wisdom that the brains of young boys are particularly vulnerable. No more than a third of practice time for Pop Warner teams can include contact drills.
About 3.5 million children between ages 6 and 13 play football in the United States, and only a fraction of them are in Pop Warner leagues. The vast majority play in independent leagues, often with volunteer coaches, referees and doctors.
To determine the vulnerability of young athletes, the study tracked 50 players on three youth teams in Virginia and North Carolina for a season.
The players had six accelerometers placed in each of their helmets measuring how many times they were hit in the head, where they were struck on their helmets and how much their heads accelerated when hit.
The study showed that 41 percent of all head hits were to the front of the helmet and 25 percent to the back. Four of the 50 players sustained a concussion during the season.
When data from all three teams were consolidated, the difference in the number of hits per session for practices and games was not significant.
However, players on the team that adopted the new Pop Warner rule changes absorbed an average of 37-46 percent fewer hits than players on the other two teams over the entire season, taking into account practices and games.
Players on those two teams participated in twice as many contract drills as the team that adopted the Pop Warner rule changes. Additionally, the team that adopted the Pop Warner rule changes did not allow contact during special-teams drills, while the other two did.
In addition to reducing the amount of contact during practices, there has been a move to emphasize teaching children better techniques. USA Football, for instance, has started a Safe Tackling program that teaches coaches and players the proper ways to tackle, with a particular focus on independent youth football leagues that may lack the resources of more established leagues.
“You’re seeing a culture change due to the awareness” of concussions and other head injuries, said Steve Alic, a spokesman for USA Football.
“There is a re-emphasis on fundamentals,” Alic said. “It’s not easy to change the culture of youth football, so it’s going to take time.”