When I started this blog, I didn’t think the majority of my posts would be about youth tackle football, but this is a vital topic of conversation in youth recreational sports. My last post mentioned the National Association of Youth Sports. Another organization I follow on Twitter is The Aspen Sports Institute (@AspenInstSports) because they share a similar philosophy of promoting positive youth recreational sports experiences. Recently, they posted a link to a statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics on Tackling in Youth Football. Interestingly, while I was mulling over what to say about the AAP’s statement, the Oct. 26, 2015 issue of Time Magazine included a piece by Sean Gregory advocating tracking hits to the head in football similarly to how baseball tracks pitch counts. The AAP makes some solid recommendations including sort of agreeing with Gregory’s proposal for “hit counts“.
Despite some rather dubious conclusions (does the statement “a higher proportion of injuries result from contact than noncontact mechanisms” really require 5 citations?!?!), the AAP statement includes a couple of nuggets of information, including:
- The risk of catastrophic injury during participation in football is comparable to the risk in gymnastics and lower than the risk in ice hockey.
- The incidence of injuries sustained by children ages 7 to 13 years playing football was similar to, and in fact slightly lower than, that of baseball and boys’ soccer.
The AAP statement is balanced; while presenting data that limiting the contact in practices or not having contact until a certain age may reduce the number of head injuries, they also present the position that delaying the teaching of proper tackling and getting tackled techniques might actually make the risk of injury higher. Their conclusions / recommendations include changing the culture of of football to one where there is zero tolerance for illegal head-first hits, removing tackling from football altogether (they admit this is quite radical and not likely), expanding nontackling leagues (see my previous post recommending flag football before middle school), making efforts to reduce the number of hits to the head, delaying the age when tackling is introduced, strengthening the athlete’s necks, and making every effort to have athletic trainers on the sidelines of football practices and games.
With respect to the AAP’s recommendation to reduce the number of hits, they are at least partially in line with the idea of “hit counts”. Gregory offers what he calls a modest proposal: regulating hits to the head in football just as we count pitches in baseball. He notes that this would require outfitting helmets with sensors and then determining how many shots a player can sustain before sitting out. A Google search of football helmet impact sensors resulted in a couple of products ranging from $49.99 to $199.99; so, the idea of including sensors in youth football helmets might make an already expensive sport more so. But, if it contributes to reducing the number of long-term head injuries to youth football players; what parent wouldn’t pay the additional cost? Although the AAP cites the need for more research in the area, they reference a study that found a mean of 774 impacts per high school player during a single season (the number varied by position, with linemen sustaining the higher number of impacts) and another where the average number of hits per 7-8 year-old player was 107 with more occurring during practices than games. The statement also reported that the number of impacts increased with increasing level of play from youth to high school.
I recommend additional research with the expected result being the establishment of standard age-based ‘hit counts’ that would then be measured using sensors installed in helmets. In the meantime, leagues ought to consider simply counting collisions involving the head during practice and games as a start – and limiting them based on localized results. As Gregory asks in his piece: “Baseball started somewhere. Why can’t football do the same?”