Originally published- New York Post
Local youth football coaches are formulating a playbook to combat the impact of concussions, and ease parents’ fears of serious head injuries to their children. Participation numbers are down across New York City at the youth level, as The Post reported on Tuesday, but many of those involved are trying to reverse that decline.
An increased effort toward education and innovation is aimed at making the sport safer in the face of concerns over athletes suffering concussions.
The biggest change is making it mandatory in most youth leagues for coaches to be certified through USA Football, which in conjunction with the NFL began its Heads Up football initiative in 2012.
The organization runs approximately 300 coaching clinics nationwide for both high school and youth coaches that teach health tips, protocol and proper tackling technique by leading with the shoulder and not the head.
“The first thing we do is properly tackle and block,” said David Patterson, the president of The Bronx-based Pioneer Football League. “That’s what Heads Up is about.”
Lincoln High School in Coney Island recently hosted a USA Football clinic for youth football programs and the impact of the training is beginning to take hold, according to coaches.
“I know I have observed [in the past] some of the Pop Warner coaches, just lining kids up 20 yards away and [the kids were] just running into each other. Starting it on the lower level, you are starting to see the difference already,” Lincoln coach Shawn O’Connor said.
O’Connor teaches his team tackling without helmets to further discourage kids from leading with their heads. Edmond Wilson, the president of the Empire Youth Football League, said several teams in his league teach kids to tackle in space first. Many programs are limiting the number of practices with contact and medical professionals or EMT certified coaches are more present on coaching staffs.
That allows a player who is believed to have suffered a concussion to be properly checked and often given more time to recover from concussions when they do occur, unlike in the past.
“I [can] remember [a kid] coming off a little woozy and he probably had a concussion, but back then we didn’t know,” said Rich Doyle, the president of the Staten Island Boys Football League, who has been coaching for 25 years. “You put two, three fingers up in the air, ‘Kid how many we got? Get back in there.’ Now we can’t do that.”
There are countless prevention theories and pieces of equipment on the market, in addition to the proven positive effects of proper tackling techniques.
Teams purchase helmets more frequently, wear Guardian Helmets (with added padding) at practice, preach hydration, and building up kids’ neck muscles in hopes of better absorbing any impact to the head. Riddell offers an InSite helmet with a impact-response system that is designed to measure the severity of the impact a player sustained.
Medical professionals are not completely in agreement over the effectiveness of those aids.
Dr. R. Dawn Comstock, the associate professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health, said her research has shown neck strength is a “protective factor” against concussions, that athletes with stronger necks had a decreased rate of head injuries compared to others with weaker necks.
Dr. Melissa Leber, the director of Emergency Department Sports Medicine at Mount Sinai-St. Luke’s Hospital and Mount Sinai-Roosevelt Hospital, meanwhile, said she never heard of that as a protective measure. Leber said some forms of helmet equipment are better designed to protect against head injuries.
“They want to find ways to prevent getting concussions,” Leber said. “So they are trying to find anything possible.”
Many parents speak of fear for their child’s safety and the future impact a head injury can cause. They either move their children to other sports or let them test the waters by playing flag football — a trend many area coaches believe still will funnel kids to tackle football.
“I started with touch, then flag, then contact,” Fordham Prep junior quarterback Matt Valecce said. “So it was a gradual progression for me.”
The area’s youth coaches say everyone has to become better educated on concussions, including parents. Tyson Pratcher, the co-founder of the Harlem Jets youth team, said his organization went to see the movie “Concussion” when it came out in 2015, and several other organizations have as well.
“We don’t try to hide behind it,” Pratcher said. “We talk about what we are doing to make sure it doesn’t happen and what the risks are.”
The uncertainty has caused youth football to become a game of weighing the injury risks against the benefits of potential college scholarships and leadership lessons for parents. There is still more that can be done to ease fears. In some instances, the area high-school coaches said they still find themselves correcting kids’ tackling technique and youth coaches are still dealing with dads who “played Madden and thinks he’s Vince Lombardi,” as Patterson said.
Continuing advancements in prevention, education and treatment is the best way to combat the current perception of the game.The burden is on coaches to change the sport’s downward trend by continuing these methods.
“What we can do,” Xaverian coach Mike Jioia said, “is just do the things to make the sport safer.”