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.
Pop Warner is the first league at any level to restrict the amount of contact — and reduce speed — during practice. A number of local 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 kids getting hit can simulate a college-level collision. According to the study, most sever impacts in youth football occur during practice. At the prep and collegiate level, big hits are usually saved 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 than 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.”
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.