Last week in my sports medicine practice 3 different parents asked me the same question: Is youth football safe?
In youth sports, we do see injuries that we don’t see in adult athletes, like certain fractures. However, it is clear that overall injury rates, as well as rates of severe injuries, are lower in youth football compared to high school or college football.
On the other hand, a recent study has indicated that head accelerations during youth football can be as high as those seen in high school and college players. Keep in mind that force = mass x acceleration, so while the head acceleration can be the same as in adults playing football, the force is proportionately less. Nevertheless, the results of that study should make us more careful about safeguarding the brains of our young players.
Very few scientific studies have been done on child athletes with concussions. What we do know is:
- Young athletes seem to be more susceptible to concussion than older athletes.
- Young athletes may take longer to recover than older athletes.
The Pop Warner Association has recently enacted rule changes to lessen the risk of head injury. These changes include:
- No full speed head-on blocking or tackling drills in which the players line up more than 3 yards apart.
- The amount of contact (down line vs down line, full speed scrimmage or drills) at each practice will be limited to a maximum of 1/3 of practice time.
My answer to parents is that youth football IS relatively safer than high school or college football. The greatest risk for significant injury in youth football is bad coaching. Here are 2 illustrative examples.
In the first video, 2 youth football players collide head on during a supervised tackling drill.
This practice should be strongly discouraged. We can only hope that the coach involved stepped in to correct this. The Centers for Disease Control in 2004 launched the HEADS UP program that targeted youth, middle school and high school coaches with education about teaching proper blocking and tackling techniques in order to avoid head and neck injuries. Two simple rules can avoid a lot of concussions; “see what you hit” and “your head is not for tackling.”
In the second video, a tackler delivers a deliberate blow to the head. Not only is he not penalized, but he is rewarded for his dangerous technique by the coaches on the sidelines.
In a third video, a coach is instructing his players to tackle with their shoulders and wrap their arms around the players. This is technique is much more fundamentally sound — and safer.
I encourage parents to let their youngsters play youth football if it is something the child feels excited about doing. The best way to minimize the risk of concussion is to make sure they know the rules and insist that they play by them — and to find a coach who emphasizes proper technique. Parents should not be timid about asking the coach how they teach blocking and tackling. The Concussion Clinic at Texas Children’s Hospital is a multidisciplinary clinic focused on the diagnosis and treatment of athletic head injury in young athletes. Appointments can be made at (832) 227-7678.