Should players go helmetless at football practice?

ANDERSON, Ind. — Taking off players' helmets during football practice may seem like the worst thing to do to prevent head injuries, but a recent study suggests helmetless practices could actually reduce head impacts.

Concussions and other head trauma are a hot-button issue in football and other sports, and we're more aware of the frequency of these injuries than ever before. In 2012, there were about 3.8 million concussions reported, which is about double what was reported in 2002, according to Head Case Company. Of those, about 33 percent of all sports concussions happened during practice.

Steve Alic, senior director of communications at USA Football, an organizing body for youth sports, said the study is about more than just not using helmets.

“This study from Dr. (Erik) Swartz also touches on the importance of teaching smarter and practicing smarter,” Alic said.

The idea is that players will learn to tackle without using their heads as much. Swartz, the chairman of the department of kinesiology at the University of New Hampshire and leader of the study, played rugby in college, a sport that includes a lot of contact without a lot of head injuries.

Swartz said helmetless practicing emphasizes proper tackling technique without spearing with players’ heads, according to The New York Times.

Many studies have explored changes that would improve helmets and make them safer. However, the study by researchers at the University of New Hampshire found that the amount of head impacts that could lead to concussions can be significantly reduced by removing helmets from the equation.

The study was done with NCAA Division I football teams, and the players only practiced without helmets for about 5 minutes of drills during two practices a week during the preseason and one practice a week during the regular season.

The result was about a 28 percent reduction in head impacts on participating players.

Nick Inzerello, director of football development at USA Football, said while more research needs to be done, the results of Swartz’s study are compelling.

Inzerello leads USA Football's Heads Up Football, a comprehensive program developed to advance player safety. Aimed at youth and high school players and coaches, the program has developed guidelines for practicing "better, safer" football, including how to properly fit equipment, recognize and respond to concussions, use proper tackling and blocking techniques and handle heat, hydration and sudden cardiac arrest.

Inzerello said this study wouldn’t be completely applicable to youth players because Swartz and his team were working with a small group, and college players have more control over manipulating drills appropriately.

However, Inzerello said, the study is getting to the core of what could create safer football techniques.

“We need players out on the field who are tackling in a more fundamental manner and in terms of blocking as well,” he said. “Technique matters, and that’s woven into the Heads Up Football program.”

With the guidelines and training of the Heads Up program, youth football has seen similar results to the study. Student football player injuries went down 16 percent, while concussions were reduced by about 28 percent.

Head injuries and the fear of permanent damage could be one reason overall participation is down in youth sports. Numbers across the board declined by about 9.3 percent in 2014 compared to the five years previous, according to a study by Sports and Fitness Industry Association.

Inzerello said the best thing concerned parents can do is to do their research online and to be aware of concussion symptoms and protocols.

Parents can also look for a Heads Up-certified youth football league. About 77 percent of youth football leagues nationally are Heads Up certified, meaning those leagues are trained and use the same protocols set by USA Football.

Inzerello said research needs to continue to make sports safer, whether it is through studies about helmetless practices like Swartz’s or not.

“We owe it to the game,” he said. “We owe it to every youngster that plays the game. We have a responsibility to continue to research best practices out there, to improve our safety programs.”

Filchak writes for the (Indiana) Herald Bulletin.

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