It’s one of America’s favorite sports, and more and more our kids are joining youth football leagues. And even when you keep it all fun and games on the football field, kids are on the field are taking big hits.
According to researchers at Virginia Tech, Nearly three quarters of the football players in the U.S. are less than 14 years old. But amid growing concern about concussion risk in football, the majority of the head-impact research has focused on college and professional players.
But researchers at Virginia Tech hope work they are doing right now, could change that.
There are more than three million youth football players in the U.S., but there’s almost no research on this population.
"We believe that’s it’s possible to engineer safer sports at every level, but first you need the data. There’s an opportunity here to really make a difference," said Stefan Duma, the Harry Wyatt Professor of engineering in the College of Engineering and a world-renowned expert on injury biomechanics, who led the research.
Duma is also the interim director of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science.
Duma followed several youth ages 9-11 on two teams. The players wore helmets lined with spring-mounted accelerometers, which allowed the researchers to measure head acceleration.
Over 10 games and 55 practices, these instrumented helmets recorded thousands of head impacts, and video footage showed what activity led to each one.
"So, the technology we have in the helmets measures head acceleration," said Duma. "And it gives us a level of magnitude. That we can tell every single drill, which ones are associated with the highest level of magnitude. And which ones are lower. We can focus in, going back and looking at video: these are the high level impacts and these are the ones we want to get rid of."
Duma says just changing practice techniques can halve the number of hits.
"You can go from one season of head exposure of 300 hits per kid down to 150 hits per kid," said Duma. "So just by modifying how we practice, we can get rid of half of the head impacts."
Duma says drills like middle drill, Oklahoma, and King of the Circle caused the greatest concern.
"We have some drills where you have players line up and run straight at each other in practice," said Duma. "That doesn't really happen in the games. Especially, at the youth level. So, we're working with coaches to get rid of some of those drills."
Of the strongest 10 percent of impacts the players received, the majority occurred during tackling drills even though the players spent relatively little practice time on these.
The drill with the highest rate of head impacts was King of the Circle, a tackling drill in which a ball carrier rushes at defenders on the perimeter of a circle. On the other hand, offensive and defensive drills had the lowest rates of head impact and resemble actual game play more closely than isolated tackling drills like King of the Circle.
"Some of these changes can have dramatic effects," said Duma. "What this research project does, is it puts the data behind the decision making."
The findings all boil down to this: changing the structure of youth football practices could substantially reduce young players' exposure to dangerous head impacts.
Duma and Rowson lead Virginia Tech’s helmet research lab, which has won international recognition for evidence-based ratings of football and hockey helmets that give athletes, coaches, and parents the information they need to choose helmets that best reduce concussion risk.
This year, the lab is adding bicycle helmets and soccer headgear to their testing program.
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