How to reduce concussions in young football players?

photoPhoto © AdobeStock

There is growing concern about concussions among football players, especially young ones. What once seemed like mild injuries are being recognized as something that can cause serious problems later in life. A study earlier this month found that at least five percent of young football players — aged 5-14 — are suffering concussions each year. 

What can be done to reduce head injuries, short of eliminating football? The obvious answer is to reduce the number of head impacts, but just how that can be done isn’t clear. So researchers at the Wake Forest School of Medicine ran a study that compared head impact exposure (HIE) in practice drills among six youth football teams and evaluated the effect of individual team practice methods.

They found that full-speed tackling and blocking drills resulted in the highest number of head impacts. Reducing time spent on contact drills may not reduce impacts. Instead, the researchers found that reducing speed, correcting tackling technique, and progressing to contact may reduce impacts more effectively.

“Solely reducing time spent on contact drills may not lower overall head impact exposure in practice,” said Jillian Urban, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Wake Forest. “The severity and frequency of head impacts in practice may be more influenced by the individual athletes and how drills are taught and run rather than the amount of time spent on each type of drill.”


In the study, the researchers collected on-field head impact data from athletes age 10 to 13 on six North Carolina youth football teams during all practices in one season. Video was recorded and analyzed to determine impact severity using the Head Impact Telemetry System, a system of sensors embedded in football helmets to detect and record head impacts.

Among all six teams, full-speed tackling and blocking drills resulted in the highest head impact severity and frequency, according to the study’s lead author, Urban said.

Growing concern about head impacts

The concussion issue is a matter of growing concern, as researchers find more evidence of long-lasting effects from seemingly minor injuries . A study released in November 2018 found it may only take one season of high school football to cause microscopic changes in the structure of the teen-aged brain. The scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, said their study adds to evidence that repeated blows to the head may lead to cognitive disorders later in life, even when the injuries are not serious enough to cause a concussion.

This is the period when the brain is still developing, when it is not mature yet, so there are many critical biological processes going on, and it is unknown how these changes that we observe can affect how the brain matures and develops,” Prof. Chunlei Liu said in a news release.

Over the past decade, researchers have found that an alarming number of retired soldiers and college and professional football players show signs of a newly identified disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), believed to cause mood disorders, cognitive decline and eventually motor impairment as a patient ages.

“There is a lot of emerging evidence that just playing impact actually changes the brain, and you can see these changes at the molecular level in the accumulations of different pathogenic proteins associated with neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and dementia,” Berkeley’s Liu said. “We wanted to know when this actually happens — how early does this occur?”

About the Wake Forest study

Head impact exposure was measured in terms of impacts per player per minute and peak linear and rotational head acceleration. The Wake Forest Baptist research team analyzed the differences in head impact magnitude and frequency among drills, as well as differences among teams within the most common drills. A total of 14,718 impacts during contact practices were collected and evaluated in this study.

More study is needed to find the best ways of reducing head impacts, she said.

The findings are published in the Dec. 21 online edition of the Journal of Neurosurgery: Pediatrics.

About the Author

Truman Lewis
Truman has been a bureau chief and correspondent in D.C., Los Angeles, Phoenix and elsewhere, reporting for radio, television, print and news services, for more than 30 years. Most recently, he has reported extensively on health and consumer issues for ConsumerAffairs.com and FairfaxNews.com.