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Head Impact Exposure in Youth Football Surprisingly High

Teach proper tackling, minimize full contact drills say Virginia Tech researchers

Think that, because youth football players are smaller and don't run as fast as their high school and college brethren, they don't get hit as hard?

Think again. Youth football player

The data suggests that youth football players as young as 6 years-old get hit almost as hard, although not nearly as often, as older players, according to a surprising 2012 study.[1]

Researchers from the Center for Injury Biomechanics at Virginia Polytechnic - Wake Forest University fitted the helmets of seven youth football players, ages 6 to 9, with hit sensors.  They found that:

  • The players, on average, received 107 head impacts over the course of a season (around 5 games and 9 practices).
  • Most hits were to the side (36% of all impacts) and front of the helmet (31%), with hits to the top and rear of the helmet much less frequent (18 and 14% respectively);
  • The hits (linear acceleration) ranged in g force (a measure of force as it relates to gravity) from 10 to 100, with an average of 18 g;
  • Impacts to the top of the helmet were associated with the highest g forces;
  • Of the 748 impacts recorded, a total of 38 above 40 g were collected; in contrast to high school and college players, most of the high impact hits (29) occurred during practice, not games;
  • A total of 6 impacts (.08%) were collected with linear accelerations above 80 g, a level of severity similar to some of the more severe impacts that college players experience;  and
  • No players was diagnosed with a concussion during the season.

Based on their findings, the authors recommended that steps be taken to reduce head impact exposure in youth football, particularly at higher severities, by restructuring practices to minimize full contact drills and focusing instead on practicing football fundamentals, with an emphasis on the teaching of proper tackling technique.  

Youth-specific football helmets needed

In addtion, the study calls for changes in the design of youth football helmets.  The authors noted that, despite the players' smaller size and undeveloped neck muscles, helmets for youth players are remarkably similar in size, mass and design materials to adult football helmets.

Combined with data showing that a substantially higher percentage of hits to the helmets of youth players are to the side of the helmet - which the researchers attributed to a differences in the styles of play between the different age groups, as well as the fact that youth players have a tendancy to fall to the side when tackled - these factors may result in a youth player being more susceptible to impacting his head on the ground while being tackled than a high school or college player, knowledge, they said, that could aid in the design of better youth-specific football helmets.

Beginning in the fall of 2012, the Virginia Tech and Wake Forest researchers began collecting more data on impacts among the youth football population by putting hit sensors in the helmets of over 300 youth football players from ages 6 to 18 in a program they are dubbing KIDS (Kinematics of Impact Data Set). The first of the studies reporting that data has now been issued.[3]

As more is learned about youth head impact exposure, the researchers say, they can begin to develop methods to evaluate youth-specific helmet designs (as is now being done in the Virginia Tech Helmet Ratings,TM now in its third year; ratings of youth football helmets are promised in 2014.

Swift response

In the summer of 2012, Pop Warner responded swiftly to the findings of the Virginia Tech researchers on 6-to-9-year-olds by adopting new practice rules [2] designed to reduce the number and magnitude of helmet-to-helmet impacts.  The rule changes, however, were subsequently criticized in a controversial 2013 study [3] by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Based on data showing that, while youth football players sustained concussions at about the same rate in practice and overall as high school and college athletes, they were injured at a rate 3 to 4 times higher than older players during games, the UPMC researchers predicted that Pop Warner's new rules "may not only have little effect on reducing on reducing concussions but may also actually increase the incidence of concussions in games via reduced time learning proper tackling in practice." (emphasis supplied).

No sooner did the UPMC study issue, however, then came a second study by the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest researchers[4] - this one of an older group of 9- to 12-year-old football players - which found that reducing the number of head hits in practice did not lead to higher force impacts during games, precisely as they had predicted would be the case if the amount of contact was reduced during practice, and pouring a significant amountg of cold water on the UPMC study. 

Watch this space for further developments.

1. Daniel R, Rowson S, Duma S. Head Impact Exposure in Youth Football. Ann. Biomed. Eng 2012;40(4):976-981.

2. http://www.popwarner.com/About_Us/Pop_Warner_News/Rule_Changes_Regarding... (accessed May 17, 2012)

3. Kontos P, Fazio V, Burkart S, Swindell H, Marron J, Collins M. Incidence of Sport-Related Concussion among Youth Football Players Aged 8-12 Years. J Pediatrics 2013. DOI 10.1016/j.jpeds.2013.04.011

4. Cobb BR, Urban JE, Davenport EM, Rowson S, Duma SM, Maldjian JA, Whitlow CT, Powers AK, Stizel JD. Head Impact Exposure in Youth Football: Elementary School Ages 9-12 Years and the Effect of Practice Structure. Ann Biomed Eng ( 2013): DOI: 10.1007/s10439-013-0867-6 (online ahead of print)

Revised August 14, 2013