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Limiting Tackling Drills Leads to Fewer High-Magnitude Head Impacts

Youth football leagues could drastically reduce the amount of high-magnitude head impacts their players endure by limiting the amount of time they spend on tackling drills during practice, according to a study published online last week in the Journal of Neurology.

The study authors equipped 34 youth football players between the ages of 9 and 11 with helmets containing an array of accelerometers, which recorded the head impacts they received during practices and games. They logged a total of 6,813 impacts, 408 of which had accelerations exceeding 40g, which the study authors chose to quantify as high-magnitude head impacts. A majority of those 40g-plus impacts occurred in practice (314, or 77 percent), while the remaining 94 (23 percent) occurred in games. The athletes involved in the study also endured 118 impacts that exceeded 60g and 59 that exceeded 70g, although no players were diagnosed with a concussion.

The study authors found the greatest number of high-magnitude head impacts occurred during tackling drills, even though they were conducted far less frequently than other offensive or defensive drills. A drill known as King of the Circle, which involves a player standing in the middle of a circle charging at players on the perimeter of a circle and getting tackled, had the highest impact rate. Tackling drills in practice accounted for between 40 and 50 percent of the highest-magnitude head impacts (above 60g), whereas only 25 percent of such impacts occurred during games.

The study authors found that during a typical 90-minute practice, the teams averaged nine minutes in tackling drills and five minutes in blocking drills. While those two drills accounted for roughly one-fifth of the practice time, they were responsible for 86 percent of the high-magnitude head impacts.

"These data suggest that a substantial reduction in high-magnitude head impacts in youth football could be attained through limiting the amount of contact in practice," the study authors concluded.

If teams spent 10 fewer minutes on tackling and blocking drills each practice, the authors surmised it would lead to a 38 percent reduction in such head impacts. They also suggested that eliminating the King of the Circle drill from youth practices entirely could help reduce the amount of head impacts, as "the very high impact rate was not representative of games."

Previous studies have established that a greater proportion of high-magnitude head impacts in youth football occur during practices compared to games, but this study's focus on which drills led to the highest-magnitude head impacts is novel. The authors' conclusion aligns with the findings of a study recently published in the Journal of Athletic Training, which noted that since the Michigan High School Athletic Association began limiting how many full-contact football practices were allowed per week at the middle and high school levels, head impacts fell by nearly 42 percent.

With all but four states now having some limit on the amount of contact allowed during high school football practices, according to Lindsay Straus of SmartTeams, many schools already have a leg up when it comes to reducing the number of high-magnitude head impacts to which its student-athletes are subjected. Continuing to reassess the prevalence of certain drills based on data-driven research should only further that mission in the years to come.

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