Any more, one can’t enter the football forum without encountering conversation about the growing concern of head injuries in the sport.
Intense scrutiny at the highest levels of the game has quickly trickled down to the high school and youth levels.
This past season, the national Pop Warner football organization established new rules limiting full-speed collisions and contact drills allowed during practice – becoming the first youth sports organization to impose such limits.
It complemented an already stringent effort by the Douglas Pop Warner organization to enhance player safety.
“Douglas has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to the safety of the players,” said Mike Dillon, a longtime coach and board member in the program. “When national set those rules in place last year, we adopted an intense safety program.
“We started having the coaches submit a very strict practice plan, so that we’d know exactly when any hitting was going on during practice.”
Simply, the rules cut the amount of contact drills during practice to no more than one-third of the total practice session.
The move was made in recognition of recent research which showed the bulk of the most severe contact in the sport happened during practice.
“The game has changed,” Dillon said. “It’s not the game we played in high school. No more running starts and sending kids back into the game when they’ve exhibited concussive symptoms. Those days are done.
“There’s just a lot more information out there now.”
For many years, Douglas Pop Warner coaches have been put through stringent training on how to teach appropriate tackling.
The new rules have helped augment the player safety program.
“What they are finding is that there is a cumulative effect, especially with the linemen,” Douglas Pop Warner president Jim Valentine said. “So aside from proper tackling, there was a needed push to remove players from contact situations.
“What we found this last year is when we spent practice working on the overall technique, but not the full-speed contact, we were seeing healthier kids throughout the year. You do the drills and exercises without contact and you are just as effective in the game.”
“All the contact in practices has been shortened to distances of three yards,” he said. “You’re taking two-thirds of the contact out of practice. There’s no perfect solution to end concussions, but the same can be said for any sport.
“What we are doing is minimizing the exposure to the risk while still maintaining the sport. Our focus has become focusing on practicing better and smarter.”
National Pop Warner officials estimate the new rules will eliminate 60-plus percent of concussions in the sport.
“The conversation has picked up so much nationally in the past four years,” Valentine said. “It’s been fascinating watching it evolve.
“Player safety has always been our No. 1 concern. But the information coming out now has changed how we view the game. One of the biggest concerns is second-impact syndrome. It can be fatal and it is really critical for the coaches to be aware of the symptoms. We have strong rules about when a player has to be taken out of a game, and how long it is until they can come back to the sport.
“You can’t come back too soon. We’re pulling kids out more often just to be careful. The awareness, more than anything, has changed a lot of what we do.”
Douglas Pop Warner spends the first 10 practice hours of the season simply getting players acclimated to the heat and the equipment. No contact is allowed during the first week of practice.
It’s another 10 hours of practice, making sure players can tackle properly, before they are allowed in a scrimmage setting.
“It’s funny, watching Pop Warner and high school kids tackle, because they do it so much better technique-wise than professional athletes,” Dillon said. “They can’t rely on their physical size and speed as much as the pros do, so you see better tackling at the lower levels.
“It’s so important to learn correct technique, because it’s something they carry on to the highest levels they are able to play football.”
Pop Warner is accepting sign-ups for the fall season throughout the summer. Paperwork can be printed out from douglaspopwarner.com and dropped off at the RE/MAX realty offices in Gardnerville.
All divisions remain open, particularly the unlimited division, which does not have a weight limit and is typically filled by seventh- and eighth-grade players.
“We have payment plans available if that is an issue,” Dillon said. “We try to customize it to help the family.”
Practice starts Aug. 5.
“It’s a commitment,” Valentine said. “We go two hours a day, five days a week that first month. The best way to learn a sport is to be immersed in it.
“We’ve seen, though, that grades are higher for the kids during football season than during the offseason. That’s because they are learning discipline and because in order to participate, we do grade checks. We were the first youth sports organization to require grade checks. We’ve seen that pay off over time.
“Kids, instead of coming home and jumping on the Nintendo or whatever, come home and do their school work. That’s the most valuable thing we teach, is discipline and responsibility in the classroom. We just want as many kids to be involved as possible.”