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Make the Hit! Pads or no pads in youth football?

There has been much focus on injuries caused from tackling or "hitting" in American football in the last decade, and because of this we are now beginning to see teams, leagues, parents and organizations taking measures to reduce the incidence of injury. More specifically, the increased number of concussions and even death across the spectrum of athletes from youth to the professional levels due to the nature of repeated impacts seen in these sports is of most concern. It cannot be argued that brain injuries such as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) correlate directly with repeated trauma to the head. Thus we are left with decisions to make as football coaches, parents, league officials, doctors, trainers and strength coaches that will help keep our athletes safe and keep the sport appealing to parents of these young athletes while also maintaining the integrity and tradition of American football. Current statistics show that in the last decade the number of athletes playing football from age 6 and up has dropped from 7.94 million in 2007 to 5.22 million in 2017. In a report from the NFHS, high school football numbers decreased 25,901 from 2016-2017. Many youth programs across the country are also seeing a decline in numbers with some having to cut programs. There are other reasons for a drop in numbers as well. Fall baseball is growing and many parents see this as a safe alternative to playing football for their young athletes. The economy is forcing more parents to work longer days and weekends and thus a sport like football, which requires a big time commitment from parents is not an option. Sheer numbers of our youth athletes is also down, with current trends showing that this will continue to drop over the next decade. We are also battling a new detriment to all youth sports as we witness a society where many kids are simply too lazy to commit to a sport like football or physical sports and activity in general. Physical education is being cut across the country and "free play" time is down drastically. Children are losing their ability to express themselves physically and creatively due to the decrease in activity both at school and at home. As Dr. Daniel Oneil calls it, "children are losing their physical identity" as a result of the increased usage of smart phones and other electronic devices.

Being a member of an athletic team requires more than "just showing up" if you want to truly be successful. It requires hard work, accountability, physical stress and a commitment to excellence. Many might agree that in this "age of technology" we are seeing fewer and fewer youngsters who have these qualities. It could be that parents are much to blame here, as we all know that our youth will most always "learn what they live", and it's way easier to shove that ipad in their face at night rather than go out and play in the yard...

As a performance coach in the world of athletics I am concerned with 2 things; the safety of athletes and athletic performance. It could be argued that these two things are one in the same, as the best performance is most always the best prevention and the best prevention from injury is also the best performance. If you are hurt you are not able to perform at optimal capacity and conversely if you are not performing at your best due to injury or pain (chronic or acute) you are more likely to sustain an injury or re-injure yourself. Your training, which includes sport practices as well as performance training in the gym or playing in the backyard, should always be focused on both of these measures in order to optimally prepare the athlete to be at his/her best and most resilient state. Every athlete I see, regardless of age or level of performance and competition has these same two goals; to be at their best, and to be injury free so they can remain at their best.

I recently read a local HS football coaches’ blog post on hitting in practice, which they do just one day a week. 10 years ago I would have thought this to be quite strange and might have questioned the decision from a preparatory standpoint as it is such a fundamental piece of the game. Fast forward to about 4 years ago I would not have thought it to be that strange at all, and would have thought immediately of the Dartmouth College

football team and head Coach Buddy Teevens who's athletes were not hitting each other at all in practice and still winning conference titles. They got a lot of press for their remote controlled dummies they were using instead. Coach Teevens came up with the idea to help keep his athletes safe while also allowing them to manage their fatigue and the abuse they take throughout their college careers. There are also many youth programs making a switch to flag football until the time the athletes reach high school. The intent being to reduce the number of impacts to the head that athletes are seeing at a young age and thus reduce the risk of injury acutely, and then later on in their careers due to this repetitive trauma.

About a week before the youth and HS football seasons each fall I have the opportunity to spend two days with over 60 local youth football players in 5th-8th grades during an on field pre-season camp that myself and my staff put on for free. It's an absolute blast for myself and I know the feedback we got from parents, athletes and coaches was much the same! Our focus was to get athletes moving a week before the season starts while also teaching proper mechanics for skills such as change of direction, acceleration, top speed running, deceleration, agility and jump and land technique. Many of these athletes still have not developed these integral pieces of their long term athletic skill development so it's vital that they see it and experience it now. We also covered proper warm ups and cool down and spent time talking about hydration and good food choices for athletes. To sum it up we covered the basics, because at this stage of their athletic development this is vital to their success as athletes in whatever sport they might find themselves playing.

We also know that youth athletes who possess better movement qualities will in turn be less likely to sustain injuries in sport such as strains and sprains, and yes also concussions. Developing a robust athletic skill set will act as a protective mechanism for athletes when joints and tissues are put into compromised positions in sport. Build a strong foundation and master the basics of athletic movement early and young athletes will be safer and more successful in all sporting environments. Parents get them out of the house and running around every day!! More time playing games, climbing trees, hopping, skipping, playing tag, and walking on balance beams will prevent injuries and lead to better athletes!

When the topic of hitting in youth football comes up I have mixed emotions, but I do have an opinion. As a young lad I played youth soccer, and then when I was old enough I played youth tackle football. I went on to play HS football and also spent a short time in college football where injuries from a car accident ultimately ended my run. I should also note that in HS I played 2 seasons of varsity soccer while attending a ski racing academy my freshman and junior year where football was not an option. It was a wild HS career as I competed in 6 varsity sports, football, baseball, track and field, alpine skiing, soccer and I even ran in a few X-C races. My athleticism was tested for sure and I excelled due to all of my time playing everything under the sun and doing so for many many thousands of hours on end. We did not specialize early in any sport, instead we played everything! I was raised in a big time football family where all of the guys played and found joy and success on the football field. My grandfather lived and breathed football in our community at every level, and rarely missed a local practice or game during the season. Although he is gone now his name is ethched on the broadcast booth in the stands at our local HS and his legend lives on. My father was a HS standout and went on to play at a college in SD where he was teammates with former NFL player Lyle Alzado. My father's college career ended prematurely due to multiple concussions early on that led him to choose to hang up the cleats. My father, myself and my 2 brothers are the only family to ever have 4 immediate family members to be chosen to the VT Shrine Football team. All of us played tailback, and trust me we all took our fair share of hits. I can remember one head to head hit in HS where the lower screws of my mask popped out and the mask hit me in the face. The trainer cleaned me up and stopped my nose from bleeding, and back out on the field I went for some more.

My point is not to brag here, but instead to

provide some context into my passion for the sport of football. I have both "in the trenches" experience and empathy for what happens at each level of the sport. I'm not just some guy writing an article about a highly controversial subject while lacking any personal experience or empathy for what actually happens on the field. For more than a decade now I have worked as a strength and conditioning coach and have trained well over a thousand athletes in many sports at every level, from youth to the pros. Many of these athletes are football players or athletes in other high contact sports.

In my opinion we pull the pads and move to flag football at the youth level, here’s why...

  • Greater athletic skill development without the pads.

In my time spent both playing football and also helping coach with our local youth programs I can tell you that wearing pads does not allow athleticism to be fully expressed or developed especially for younger, smaller athletes. If you’ve ever watched a bunch of 4th, 5th and 6th graders run around with full pads on you know that it is everything but fluid athletic movement. The weight and bulk of the padding and a helmet make it very difficult for them to move quickly or effectively as they are so restricted. This bulk and weight does not allow them to develop the sprinting and change of direction skills that they would without the pads on.

It isn’t until 7th or 8th grade when “some” of the athletes have grown enough or become strong enough to be able to run with efficient sprint mechanics with all the pads on. Even then it's still not fluid movement, nor can it be, as most have yet to develop efficient movement mechanics at that age anyways. Physiologically they are still developing the tensile qualities in their muscles and tendons to be able to move with any true coordinated movement. Hence the Long Term Athletic Development model and layering on skill development from youth through adolescence and into adulthood. The awkwardness that pads and helmets add to an already awkward kid is like teaching a baby giraffe how to walk on ice. It also limits their movement creativity which is so vital to neuro muscular development.

Bigger athletes, due to weight restrictions, most times must play on the line (lineman) and thus don’t have the same opportunity to run, cut, jump and change direction at high speeds due to their positional demands. In some age groups and leagues there are weight limits that athletes must be under in order to play at all!! Keeping a young athlete out of a sport and physical activity due to his weight as a youth can lead to a host of other problems for the athlete in the future, emotionally, socially and from a long term health and fitness standpoint. Over the years I have had parents reach out to me about helping their athletes "cut weight" for weigh ins at the start of each season. Although I am glad they reach out to a professional with these types of questions, the idea of cutting weight at that age can be a very scary situation on many different levels and not something a youth athlete

should have to focus on.

Many of these bigger athletes at the youth level simply developed earlier in their lives and are a bit ahead at this stage when it comes to their bodyweight and/or height. However, some of these "big guys" might not be so big when they get to high-school while other athletes catch up, and they might find themselves playing running back or quarterback or in the defensive secondary where they will need to call on all the athletic skills they developed at a young age. Regardless of their size, athletes must be given the opportunity to develop as much athletic potential as possible at the youth level. Doing so will allow for greater performances and durability as adults. We know from developmental models that for boys the ages of 8-12 is a key stage in the development of speed, agility and change of direction both from a motor based model and also when considering physiological development to muscle, tendons and ligamentous tissues. Restricting athletes to one position or funneling them into specific motor patterns can potentially hold them back from reaching their athletic potential later as adult athletes. Flag football has fewer movement and positional restrictions than playing tackle football does and should be considered as an alternative to tackle football at the youth level.

If the game was played with flags we would potentially see all athletes on the field developing a more robust athletic skill set with greater movement diversity that would in turn better prepare them for their future in athletics and for other positions in the sport of football. Their “athletic bandwidth” would be larger, and thus allow for more success in all of their athletic activities and all of the sports that they play.

There is a greater focus on eluding defenders and spatial awareness in flag football rather than running someone over. HS coaches would potentially be seeing athletes arriving as freshman with a larger toolbox of athletic skills to draw from. NFL legend Tom Brady didn't play until the 9th grade because his father felt he was physically not ready for that type of environment yet. He also didn't let him throw curve-balls until he was 14 years old, which he felt would help protect his arm. Archie Manning, Eli and Peyton's father, also an NFL great, loves the game of flag football and has been quoted as saying, "I wish I'd played my whole career in flag football." Neither Eli or Peyton Manning played football until the 7th grade when it was available at the youth level.

  • Tackling and "hitting" can still be taught.

Hitting tackling dummies and sleds can and should still be taught at the youth level as this is an important skill set to develop for later in their football careers. Many of the smaller athletes shy away from tackling or "hitting" drills and sometimes quit altogether if practices have too much contact involved. I've yet to meet a youngster, especially boys, who do not like to tackle a foam dummy, it's fun!! But I can tell you that when "Oklahoma" drills come into a practice many of the smaller athletes will shy away from taking their reps or approach the drills with apprehension and fear. I was one of those athletes, at about 96# in 7th grade, my first year playing football, and barely over 100# my eighth grade year before entering HS. Some of the guys I was up against had facial hair already!! Luckily I found strength and conditioning in high school. Although most coaches normally matched you up with a guy your size there were always situations where a mismatch would happen and a little guy would get absolutely blown up. Most of us knew this is just a right of passage and took our shots and kept on coming to practice each night. I will agree that it does teach toughness in that sense, as spartan like as that might seem, but we were young boys and the idea of surviving something like that was cool and proved to others that we were tough enough. However some athletes left, and some never came back after getting their "bell rung" in a hitting drill. FYI getting your "bell rung" would most likely classify as a concussion with the testing protocols and education we have on head injuries now. So why can't we replace these drills involving player contact with drills involving tackling dummies and sleds? You can bring just as much intensity and aggression to one of these drills, in fact you will bring more as there will be almost nobody skipping reps or fearful of taking them. USA Football promotes "Heads Up Tackling" practices for all coaches as this is "the right way to tackle." Teaching tackling without the actual player to player contact provides a more controlled environment for coaches to manage and also one that athletes of all sizes would look forward to participating in. Not to mention it's a safer environment where athletes can move without apprehension and focus on the technique that must be taught before the contact comes into the equation. Just like any skill development we must master the basics first.

  • Tackle Football is Expensive

The money programs would save from not having to purchase pads each year would allow for more budgetary allowances to purchase tools such as sleds, hitting dummies and blocking pads to help develop the skill of tackling at the youth level such as found with USA football Heads Up Tackling protocol. It would also allow programs to charge less for yearly dues that might keep parents who struggle to make ends meet from signing their youngsters up. Having spent some time on a youth football board I understand the many thousands of dollars that go into purchasing all of the pads, garments and helmets and the equipment reconditioning costs that goes into yearly expenses for each program. It’s not cheap. The cost of football is expensive on many different levels, injuries aside.

  • Quarterbacks will actually "throw" the ball.

Due the movement restrictions caused by shoulder pads and the weight of a football helmet it is extremely difficult for young athletes to throw the football with proper layback of the arm and rotation of the shoulder and trunk. The throwing motion is segmented in nature and involves rotational forces created from the ground up to be transferred from the hips and trunk to the arm and hand in a whipping like action. The synchronization of this movement is impaired in many youth QB’s because the pads can get in the way when limb lengths are still short. Youth quarterbacks must develop more of a “refined catapult” as their arm strength and length of their trunk and arm segments does not allow them to throw with the same technique they would without the pads. Because of this the throwing motion is bastardized a bit, and in most cases the throwing plays are few and far between in games as it’s really not all that effective to win games. Most of the offense comes from rushing the ball, while the receivers tend to have a pretty boring day with few passes thrown to them. Talk to parents of receivers at the youth level and you might hear them say that their child is doing a lot of "standing around" on the field and that the running backs get all the action. It's true. In the same conversation a parent will then tell me "I'd rather see him playing soccer if all he is going to do is stand around the whole game." Hard to argue with that point. Ultimately we want to see them moving, engaged and challenged as young athletes so as to stimulate as much growth and development as possible and to provide an adequate level of fitness.

More passing would potentially open things up and allow a faster and more exciting game to watch and potentially more fun for athletes to play.

  • No pads will prevent injuries.

The removal of pads and hitting will help decrease the number of impact injuries to the head and neck region and injury to the brain. The removal of pads will also increase running speeds, and this will help athletes develop more durable muscular and ligamentous tissues in the lower body throughout their youth sport careers. In turn athletes will be less likely to sustain non-impact injuries such as ACL tears, ankle sprains, muscle tears and strains typically caused during changes of direction and the attempt to overcome forces seen during these decelerations. I know that sounds counterintuitive, as one would think that greater speeds would yield more injuries not less but that’s not always the case...What we must understand is that with a change being made at a young age we are essentially slow cooking the tissue resiliency process. Skeletal muscle and ligamentous tissues will develop with the athletes in a linear fashion as they progress from the youngest age groups up until the pads are put on in High School football. Running speeds will increase as they mature and get stronger creating more force along the way. Pads at a young age slows the speeds down and also the opportunity to develop optimal tissue tolerances to these speeds and forces found in sprinting. Our hope is that all of them will play at least one other sport in HS and chances are this sport will not have pads as found in football...Their tissue resilience will in large part be due to their ability to accept (aka decelerate) greater forces in change of direction movements such as cutting and landing, or reactive type movements as seen in the sport of football. Kids who run around and play at higher speeds more often will be less likely to be injured in sport from the same type of movement. Exposure to similar types of speeds and intensities as found in competitive sport is the only way to truly create more durable athletes in competition.

This soft tissue resilience will play a big role for preventing injury in all sports throughout their careers. It will also mean quicker more explosive athletes who are able to change direction quickly and dominate in these ballistic types of environments. Athletes who have developed the ability to accept (aka decelerate) forces and also apply forces more effectively will in turn have better “brakes” and thus be less prone to ligamentous injuries such as those mentioned above.

More responsive tissues = better brakes = quicker change of direction and safer performances on the field.

Every athlete has an innate governor that will only allow them to approach a deceleration or change of direction with as much velocity as they can slow down. (Jones et al. 2017). What this means is that the more often an athlete is exposed to higher speeds and running velocities the greater speeds they will in turn be able to slow down. Those who can "accept" or decelerate greater forces are able to change directions or make cuts faster than those who cannot.

  • Can't win them all.

The flip side of this is that an increase in running speeds will also increase the impact forces seen when players do collide, which I can assure you will still happen with all of the misdirection and sudden changes in direction that occur in the sport of football. Look at the concussion rates in youth soccer or lacrosse over the last 10 years and see that concussion numbers are up there as well, more so with the female population. Youth football leads the way on this front. Let’s face it this is an aggressive sport and there will absolutely be collisions pads or not. My suggestion would be to have all players wearing a helmet such as seen in lacrosse which is lighter but will still provide protection to the head while not negatively impacting running and cutting mechanics. This will also help the athletes adapt to the visual restrictions when wearing a helmet during their time in youth football. We also can’t forget that many concussions occur not from head to head contact but from contact with the ground. This contact can happen without the presence of tackling but instead from a jump up in the air for a pass or a trip and fall situation. Having a helmet will help to lessen the trauma to the brain should athletes encounter contact of this nature.

  • More athletes signing up to play football.

I love the sport of football and would not want to see it disappear, nor would I want it to be restricted to areas with greater athlete numbers and population densities. My feeling is that pulling the pads from youth football might be a step that we need to take to help the sport of football survive across the country. I have had this conversation many many times with parents, coaches, and players past and present over the years, and although it’s a big change it would be one that could make a huge difference. Without action there can be no change. I have listened to many parents who said they are not taking the risk with their young athletes playing football, it’s just not worth it. This makes me sad, but can you blame them for making a decision to keep their athletes safe based on what we now know from research on these brain injuries? I now have a son of my own and it would make me very proud to see him playing football someday, carrying on the legacy my grandfather started many years ago. I will also admit that the concussions I knowingly sustained during my own career (4 in football, 2 in ski racing, 1 in a car accident) are not something I will want to watch him endure. Remember hitting and tackling is really just a small piece of the game of football and pulling it might not change the game that much. In fact, it might lead to a more exciting and more athletic game for fans to watch and for athletes to compete in leading to increased numbers in our programs across the country once again…Ultimately we must remember that it's still just a game. If we are knowingly putting our young athletes in harms way for a game, just a game, are we really doing our jobs as responsible parents and coaches in keeping them safe? Do we really believe that being able to take a hit and keep on going is the answer to building character, toughness and grit for our youth? I'll let you answer that for yourself...

  • Other Factors to consider

As is typically the case with any controversial issue the devil is almost always in the details. With concussion prevention other factors must be considered which I will touch on quickly.

Hydration plays a big role in helping to prevent injuries and it could also be the case with concussions. Although more research is needed recent studies have shown that a decrease in cerebrospinal fluid caused from dehydration can increase an athletes risk of sustaining a concussion. Athletes must stay hydrated always!! Parents and school teachers much of this falls on you! Parents you must get them drinking water as soon as they wake up and teachers make sure to give time at every class for them to do this during the day. There is no excuse here. The cognitive impairments of chronically dehydrated students is also staggering. Give them water and do it often.

As I talked about before an athlete’s athletic skillset or toolbox is a vital piece of preventing any injury in sport. Athletes who know how to move effectively in all planes of movement while expressing good acceleration and deceleration mechanics will greatly reduce the risk of injuries across the board. This can be developed in sport but also during the off-season with time spent with a professional strength and conditioning or performance coach. What you pay a professional coach who understands athletic movement will be worth every penny you will invest. And remember that’s exactly what you are doing, investing in your athlete’s health. Look into their background and ask questions about long term athletic development and what their model looks like. A coach who just wants to lift weights every session is probably not the best choice for youngsters. A coach who understands sprint mechanics, change of direction and injury prevention protocol is the best investment you can make for your athletes. If you have access to a gymnastics program nearby get your kids in there as young as they will take them!!

Sleep is one of the most overlooked injury prevention tools! Due to all the electronics youth have access to athletes are up later and later at night on their devices and their bodies never fully recover from the trauma or stress being placed on the body. Athletes who are sleep deprived will see less refined movement on the field and have muscular systems that are less prepared to handle the rigors of ballistic sports such as football. An athlete who is rested will have the cognitive wherewithal to make sharp and accurate decisions and movements on the field and thus decrease some of the chance for impact. Remember every movement is a decision made by the motor cortex, the athletes movement control center. If your decision making is impaired from a lack of sleep you are at greater risk of injury, just as a drunk driver would be impaired at the wheel of a car. Youth athletes should aim for 9+ hours of sleep each night. Hard to get with late practices and the absurd amount of homework athletes are given I know. Every minute at night is precious for recovery, parents you must do your job and pull the ipads and phones and turn off the lights for these youth athletes so they can be at their best each day.

More girls playing youth football? Yeah you read that right and why not? Many girls at that age can absolutely dominate in an athletic setting like flag football. Some of our best middle school athletes here at XIP are many times females. They develop just a bit quicker than boys do and this sometimes gives them a bit of an advantage in a sport like flag football. Will they play in High School? Who knows, but at the very least they will have developed the foundation to make that choice should the opportunity come about. Seeing a girl make your son look bad on the field might be a good ego check for him too. Teach him at a young age that there's always somebody better than you, and sometimes, it might be a girl.

In closing it would be my hope that this article inspires thought and conversation about how we can make changes to help maintain the health of a sport we love so much and also the athletes who play it. We must be open minded and accept that there is always another path that can and will lead us to success.

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