Youth Football’s Most Dangerous Drill

As concussion concerns return, one specific play is in question

Millions of youth football players across the U.S. can hardly wait to strap on their pads, lace up their cleats, and get back on the gridiron to the cheers of their fans this fall. But with practice already underway in many towns, there’s a renewed effort to keep these kids safe.

Nearly three-quarters of the football players in the U.S. are under 14 years old — yet researchers at Virginia Tech say the majority of the head-impact research has focused on college and professional players.

The drill with the highest rate of head impacts was “King of the Circle,” a tackling drill.

So they conducted what they say is the first-ever study looking at which specific youth football practice activities had the highest risk of head impacts. The results, published in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Pediatrics, suggest that limiting tackling drills could significantly reduce players’ exposure to serious head impacts.

“There are more than 3 million youth football players in the U.S., but there’s almost no research on this population. We believe 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, a College of Engineering professor and a world-renowned expert on injury biomechanics, in a statement.

Other studies have shown the majority of concussions in football happen at practice — at every level of the game. So that element is nothing new. But for this study, researchers followed 34 players ages nine to 11 on two Blacksburg, Virginia, youth football teams. The players wore helmets lined with spring-mounted accelerometers, which measure head acceleration.

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Over 10 games and 55 practices, the helmets recorded thousands of head impacts — video footage showed what activity led to each one. It turned out that the practice drills carried a much higher risk of head impact than others.

Related: Concussions Aren’t So Rare

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.

[lz_bulleted_list title=”Youth Football Concussions” source=””]5-10% players affected each year|Most high-level impacts happen at practice|Rates doubled over past decade|75% chance for injury each season|Cumulative concussions raise risk of catastrophic head injury by 39%|Important to manage early, as frontal lobe develops until age 25[/lz_bulleted_list]

The most important takeaway for youth coaches everywhere: Over the course of the season, young players experienced more high-magnitude impacts in practices than they did in games — in contrast to college and professional players, who sustain more serious hits during games.

Changing the structure of youth football practices could substantially reduce young players’ exposure to dangerous head impacts, the researchers said. While there is no established threshold in youth players for a level of impact that puts a player at risk of a concussion, harder hits are more likely to cause injury.

“If you know what scenarios carry the highest risk, you can start to design interventions based on that data,” added Steve Rowson, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics, and a second author of the study.

Duma and Rowson suggest eliminating the King of the Circle drill and reducing the amount of time spent in tackling drills in general, to make practice safer for youth athletes.

While they continue their research, Wake Forest University and Brown University have also begun collecting data on additional youth teams. Researchers say the larger data set will allow them to study how practice structure and head-impact risk varies from team to team. The research is part of a five-year project funded by the National Institutes of Health to track head-impact exposure in children, the largest study yet on head impacts in youth football.

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