Softening the blows that fall in practice
Youth football tackles risk of head injuriesYouth football program takes steps to reduce risk of head injuries
EVERETT — A voice rang out over Glendale Park.
Raphael Machado and Hector Burgos collided, one boy's pads rattling against the other's. Their legs churned in opposite directions, kicking up dust on a worn patch of turf as the sun set behind an Everett Tide Pop Warner football practice last week.
“Off!’’ yelled an assistant coach. Burgos cheerfully walked to the sideline with his arm around Machado's shoulders, headed for a water break, another drill put to rest.
This month, Pop Warner programs across the country are adjusting to new rules that limit such contact drills in practice. In response to the growing concern over head injuries, rules now ban teams from having contact for two-thirds of practice time. The new rules also forbid drills that involve full-speed, head-on collisions that occur after players have been lined up more than 3 yards apart.
Research has shown that most of the hardest hits occur in practice, not games, which prompted the changes for Pop Warner, the largest youth football organization in the country. Several local programs — including Everett, which combined its former Eagles and Huskies programs this year — say that they had minimized contact in their practices long before the new rules were put in place.
“The way both organizations always did it is that both always limited hitting anyways,’’ said Everett president Brian Dimond.
“You do enough hitting on Sunday. If you came down and watched a practice, they don't do a lot of live hitting. And if they do scrimmages, it's quick whistles. So the way we conduct our practices, nothing's changed. We were always within [the rules]. Beat each other up? Why bother. Beat the other team up on Sunday.’’
To determine that his players were performing contact drills for one-third or less of his practices, Everett coach Peter Forte timed each individual repetition of his team's contact drills. Because drills are often interspersed with periods when players are listening to instruction or waiting in line, Forte believed that repetitions should be monitored for each individual player. He admitted, though, that Pop Warner might not agree.
“I'm looking for the loophole,’’ Forte said, pointing to a printed spreadsheet that indicated how much contact each player had undergone during the previous night's practice.
“[Players] are doing one-on-ones, it only takes 6 seconds. The way Pop Warner is thinking, even when everyone's standing around watching, they're included in that time. My feeling is, this drill may take 20 minutes, but it's only maybe 42 seconds of actual hitting for each kid. But for Pop Warner, it's 20 minutes of contact. Once we start hitting, the whole team goes on the clock as far as contact time. My feeling is, that's not true.’’
Sam Mutz, the national commissioner of Pop Warner, said that the rule was meant to be interpreted differently, with teams blocking off one third of their practices for all contact drills. But he understands that there will be an adjustment period before all programs are on the same page with the changes.
“That's not how it was designed,’’ Mutz said of timing individual repetitions of drills.
“But again, with anything, there's lots of questions. It's a learning process for all of us. We're not going to sit here and pretend to have all the answers. We're trying to evolve with the sport, evolve with the changes, to make it better, make it safer. Is it OK? What we said is we still want the overall allotment time to be a third.’’
Everett's interpretation of the rule appeared to be popular among programs in Greater Boston.
“We really only lost 5 to 8 minutes,’’ said Burlington coach Peter D'Eramo of the newly allotted amount of contact time. “We time all the kids and everyone's under 40 minutes. The ones that play the most are the ones we watch the most, because those are the ones that are the most susceptible to contact.’’
Mutz said that the question of calculating contact time for individual players has been relatively common as teams began padded practices this month.
“I don't think they're trying to screw up the rule,’’ Mutz said. “I think they're trying to be, typically as football coaches are, detailed and very concise in what they're doing. . . . We're certainly trying to look at this as a positive that they are trying to calculate it out, because they realize the importance of reducing contact and protecting kids and they realize that the game's evolving.’’
The rule that limits full-speed contact drills has eliminated some traditional drills, but coaches agreed that practices will be safer without them.
Concord-Carlisle president Kevin Smith used to employ a tackling drill that simulated a running back weaving between blocks while a linebacker pursued to make a tackle.
“We didn't do it often, but we felt like we should do it to simulate a game,’’ Smith said. “We've stopped that. We limited it significantly last year, and this year we eliminated it entirely. Players will be in close quarters. What live hitting we do, it won't be nearly as violent.’’
Both Smith and Foxborough president Phil Thomas said they did not keep track of the amount of time spent on contact drills in practice because they were sure their teams were under the one-third limit.
According to Thomas, the amount of contact time shouldn't affect how players execute fundamentals of the game, like tackling.
“We teach all our techniques without hitting,’’ Thomas said. “We walk through it slowly. When we teach tackling we use a dummy. We don't even go live. We go nice and easy, slow so they know what to do. Then we go half speed onto a dummy. You go on a dummy then onto a person. . . . You're going to eventually go full speed, but it's baby steps. Then they're ready for full speed.’’
A number of youth football programs in the area compete under the umbrella of American Youth Football, not Pop Warner. Bay State Youth Football, for instance, fields programs in Framingham, Milton, Natick, Needham, Norwood, Walpole, and Weymouth.
American Youth Football president Joe Galat said that there have been no rules changes this season to protect further against head injuries, though he maintains that the organization has always placed the utmost importance on player safety. Coaches are urged to foster a culture of good sportsmanship, and, as with Pop Warner, they are trained to be able to recognize potential head injuries suffered by their players. American Youth Football, like Pop Warner, also emphasizes the importance of having safe facilities and equipment.
“We don’t have all the answers,“ said Galat. “I wish we did. But we’re working on it.“
Though practices of many Pop Warner programs locally have not seen significant change with the new rules, the limits placed on contact time have affected how some parents watch.
April Tavares attends each of her 14-year-old son Ricky's practices at Glendale Park. She said she still worries about him sustaining an injury, but she appreciated that Pop Warner altered its rules to try to keep its players safe.
“I'm all for it,’’ she said as she watched Ricky, a center, intently. “Any rule that makes it better and protects the kids is the most important.’’
Phil Perry can be reached at email@example.com.