The growing number of studies linking repetitive head trauma to abnormal brain function is concerning for today’s athletes and their families. Perhaps nowhere more so than in American football.
But while researchers have explored the effects of head impacts from high school to the pros, they haven’t ventured as deeply into the effects for youth players—or how head impacts happen in the first place. That’s crucial, because players under the age of 14 account for more than 70% of the 5 million American athletes who play football.
Now, a new study takes a close look at whether youth players intentionally lower their head when going for a hard hit. Broken down by session type, player position, and ball possession, the findings offer support for modifying rules and training in an effort to minimize head injuries among youth players.
Using specially equipped helmets and video footage, the authors of the study collected data on more than 68 youth football players over 153 games and practices. On average, the players were about 12 years old.
Of the more than 19,000 head impacts recorded, about 8% were classified as “high-magnitude impacts”. Approximately 80% of those hits involved intentional use of the head. And more than 80% of those hits were head-to-head—posing the highest risk of injury.
Broken down by player position, the data showed that linemen experienced the most head-to-head hits. In fact, 90% of all intentional high-magnitude impacts that linemen experienced were associated with head-to-head contact.
And while few studies have examined the role of ball possession in head impact, the current study showed a clear distinction: ball carriers experienced a greater proportion of head-to-head impacts than tacklers did.
Overall, the high frequency of intentional head impacts recorded suggests rule changes and educational programs could have a substantial effect in reducing head impacts. Some researchers, for example, have reported the benefits of teaching tacklers to track opponent’s hips with their shoulder, not their head.
To be sure, more work is needed, as ultimately, any changes to rules or player habits will have to be balanced by efforts to maintain the existing play of the game. Still, the authors’ findings should serve as a useful guide in learning how to make American football a safer game for players of all ages.