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Removing Football Helmets From Practice May Reduce Head-Impact Frequency

If you take helmets and shoulder pads away from collegiate football players, will it reduce the frequency of head impacts during practices? According to the early results of a study published online earlier this month in the Journal of Athletic Training, the answer appears to be yes.

To determine whether helmetless tackling would reduce the frequency of head impacts in practices, the study authors enlisted 50 collegiate Division I Football Bowl Subdivision players to participate over the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Twenty-five players were placed in an intervention group, which would take part in a helmetless drill once per week throughout the regular season and twice per week during the preseason, while the other 25 (the control group) participated in their regular football activities throughout the duration of the study.

The intervention group participated in drills involving "multiple supervised repetitions of executing proper tackling into an upright pad or a teammate holding a padded shield at 50 percent to 75 percent effort." The control group "completed placebo, noncontact football skills of the same frequency and duration" during the time in which the intervention group did its drills.

Those who participated in the intervention group had a 28 percent reduction in head-impact frequency per athletic exposure, which is defined as every instance of participating in a practice or game. The control group's head impacts, meanwhile, remained the same. At the start of the season, participants in both groups averaged 14 head impacts per athletic exposure, but those in the control group began to experience a decline in head-impact frequency per athletic exposure as the season progressed.

"A football helmet is designed to protect players from traumatic head injury, but it also enables them to initiate and sustain head impacts because of the protection it affords," the study authors wrote. "Risk compensation helps to explain the evolved behavior of 'spearing' and the associated rise in catastrophic head and neck injuries that paralleled the application of the hard outer shell to the football helmet in the 1950s and 1960s."

Without the protection of a helmet, young football players are disincentivized to lead with their head while performing tackling drills in practice. Thus, they're instead forced to use proper technique—wrapping up with their arms and leading with their shoulders—when going up against a tackling sled or performing a similar tackling drill.

"Given proper training, education, and instruction, college football players can safely perform supervised tackling and blocking drills in practice without helmets," said Erik E. Swartz, lead author of the study, in a statement. "This intervention also eliminates a false sense of security a player may feel when wearing a helmet."

The authors say more research is required to determine whether younger players could benefit from a similar intervention, or whether modifications would be necessary. They're also unsure of whether "the benefits derived from the intervention will persist."

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