LUMBERTON — In a sport as violent as football, an athlete’s well-being is of utmost concern.
Especially at the amateur level.
On Wednesday, Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football organization, instituted a new set of guidelines restricting contact at football practice. The rule change for the upcoming season limits the amount of time used for full-contact drills and squashes helmet-to-helmet workouts known as “ramming.” Officials have banned full-speed, head-on blocking and tackling drills in which players line up in close proximity in an effort to combat further head and neck injuries and future neurological problems.
Richmond Senior athletic trainer Mitch Hadinger said he wasn’t surprised by the move to curb the number of collisions between pre-teen football players. Hadinger added there are currently two schools of thought in dealing with this issue. The first supported by Dr. Robert Cantu, the co-director of the Neurologic Sports Injury Center at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, states no one should begin to play a violent sport like football until they reach their teenage years.
The other backed by Kevin Guskiewicz, the founding director of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center in Chapel Hill, believes teaching the fundamentals of a sport like football at an early age will carry over when the player gets older.
“I think we need to do something, but I think it gets back to individual coaches,” Hadinger said. “I saw a video on YouTube the other day where the kids had to be no older than 8 and the coach had them in the down position and running into each other. One of the kids knocked another one out cold. It was one of the scariest things I have seen.”
Pop Warner is the first league at any level to restrict the amount of contact — and reduce speed — during practice. A number of area prep coaches already have reduced contact during their day-to-day football routine.
“I think I speak for most coaches when I say we don’t like going full contact in practice,” Lumberton High football coach Mike Brill said. “In LFA (Lumberton Football Association) we encourage our coaches to do the same things we’re doing at the next level. We teach them to form tackle and wrap up, none of that doggone slamming to the ground stuff.”
Researchers at Virginia Tech and Wake Forest recently completed the first-ever study of head impacts among youth football players and discovered some hits can simulate a college-level collision. According to the study, most severe impacts in youth football occur during practice. At the prep and collegiate level, big hits are usually reserved for the opposition.
Without dumbing down a naturally violent sport, St. Pauls coach Trey Sasser says reducing the distance between players during tackling drills is most important.
“We may give our guys an angle tackle or put a dummy between two players,” he said. “That gives the kids a choice to go a step left or a step right to make a hit. We have limited contact during practice and when we do go full speed, we don’t try to lay each other out.”
Sasser calls his pre-game workouts “controlled” practices.
“We’ve got specific workouts made for live contact, but those serve a propose,” he said. “Since contact is the essence of the sport, you have to have it. But I don’t believe you can hit each other for two hours and get a lot of stuff done. You should certainly tone the aggressiveness down a notch.”
George Coltharp, who’s entering his second season at Red Springs, doesn’t like to see his players hit the ground before gameday. In fact, there’s hardly any tackling at all during a Red Devils practice.
“We call it thud-speed, when you go halfway and kind of let up,” Coltharp said. “Our mentality is getting tough in the weight room. We don’t need to throw each other around on the field. Our coaches always have a quick whistle and we try to avoid big hits as much as possible.”
Pop Warner’s updated guidelines for youth football restricts contact for no more than 40 minutes a practice or one-third of allotted prep time each week. The second rule prohibits head-on techniques that include blocking and tackling. Players may not line up more than three yards apart and then launch.
“It definitely creates a more safe environment for kids wanting to play football,” Brill said. “I know we don’t like full-speed contact at Lumberton because we’re not deep enough if players get hurt. Our kids know not to bring running backs, wide receivers and quarterbacks to the ground.”
Hadinger believes the writing may be on the wall for additional legislation to come down from Raleigh regarding contact during a high school practice. Last year, Gov. Bev Perdue signed the Gfeller-Waller Concussion Act into law requiring a student-athlete at a public high school or middle school to be removed from contest or practice if there is a suspicion they suffered a concussion. Before the student-athlete can return to competition, they must receive clearance by a medical professional.
“I can see that a regulation may come down,” Hadinger said. “If there is, it will make things difficult at times for a coach in trying to determine how many hours of contact they have had. I can definitely see this trickling up to the high school level. It’s not a bad thing because we need to protect our kids.”
Researchers are currently gathering information on a new study using helmet sensors for six different football teams in North Carolina and Virginia. The sensors are designed to measure the head impact exposure of youth football players between age 6 and 18.