Starting this fall, Pop Warner will ban coaches from utilizing full-speed, head-on blocking and tackling drills with players lined up more than three yards apart, and will prohibit coaches from using more than one-third of practice time for contact drills, the organization announced today.
These changes make Pop Warner the first youth-sports organization to make an official attempt at limiting contact in practices. Over 425,000 youths from ages 5 to 16 participate in Pop Warner football, cheer, and dance programs.
"Pop Warner's rule changes are based on research that shows that more concussions occur in practice than during games," said Dr. Julian Bailes, chairman of the Pop Warner Medical Advisory Board and chairman of the department of neurosurgery at the Chicago-based NorthShore Neurological Institute, in a statement. "The impact of head-to-head contact causes the most severe concussions, so we felt it was imperative that Pop Warner take a proactive approach and limit contact in practices."
Indeed, a joint Virginia Tech-Wake Forest study released in February found that unlike in high school and football, the hardest hits for youth-football players typically occurred in practice. Roughly 60 percent of the highest-impact hits happened in practice, not during games, the study found.
The new Pop Warner rule limiting the amount of contact will either allow coaches to use a maximum of one-third of each practice (40 minutes total) or one-third of total weekly practice time for contact drills, including scrimmages.
Earlier this year, the Boston-based Sports Legacy Institute issued a whitepaper calling for youth-sports organizations to alter their playing rules and impose a "hit count" (effectively, a contact limit) for youth-athletes. Clearly, the message sank in for Pop Warner officials.
The other rule, limiting the type of contact drills allowed in practice, will still allow offensive and defensive linemen to line up against each other and move at full speed. However, the organization definitively states that "there should be no intentional head-to-head contact" in full-speed drills involving linemen.
Both rules were announced today following the annual Pop Warner Medical Advisory Board meeting. The organization also plans on updating its website's Health & Safety section when its national website relaunches.
"We have been very vocal on this issue over the past two years because the health and safety of our young players is always our number-one priority," said Jon Butler, executive director of Pop Warner, in a statement. "By instituting these new rules and providing our coaches with proper tackling training and education in concussion awareness and prevention, we aim to equip our members with the tools they need to safely participate in the game they love."
Bailes told ESPN.com that the Pop Warner Medical Advisory Board was particularly concerned with emerging research that suggests minor, repetitive, subconcussive head impacts may cause brain injury to youth-athletes. In other words: The massive, bone-jarring hits seen at the collegiate and professional levels may not be the only cause for concern for youth-sports organizations.
UPDATE (6:00 p.m.): I just got off the phone with Butler and Bailes from Pop Warner. Below are a few thoughts and quotes from each of them:
• When asked how Pop Warner settled on the specifics of the new rule limiting the amount of contact in practice, Bailes said, "I think it was trying to reach a position where we thought we could reduce a majority of contact, but still give the players and coaches time to teach and learn the contact aspects of the sport."
• I asked Bailes about critics who might say these rule changes will decrease the amount of time youth players have to learn proper tackling techniques. His response: "This is an example of a sport needing to evolve. I think it's fully possible to teach the sport without it having to be full-contact at all times. ... There needs to be a re-examination and an evolution in coaching abilities to remain compliant with these new rule changes."
• Butler doesn't believe there's been a widespread increase in concussions in the past few years. Instead, he thinks they're simply being more comprehensively reported than they were a few years ago. (Other researchers I've spoken with share this same view.)
• Butler summed up the changes by saying, "Our goal is to make youth football as safe as possible."
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