Is Limiting Tackling During Youth Football Practice a Good Idea?

To address player safety and injury risk, the governor of California recently signed a bill that places restrictions on the amount of time allowed for tackling during any given week at football practice for high school and youth athletes. Aimed at reducing the amount of contact allowed during football practice (reducing exposure), this move follows other state and athletic legislatures in the country, all of which have received a lot of media attention.

So: Can it work? Should other high school programs follow suit? In my opinion, this is a reasonable step, but we must monitor to prove the desired effect and to watch for unintended consequences. As always, we must look at the bigger picture, and we must ensure the new rules are accompanied by quality education and knowledge transfer, so that the intended behavioral changes are realized and effective.

[See: 9 Sports Injuries That Sideline Kids.]

It’s essential to point out that taking a closer, objective look at injuries among young athletes and brainstorming reduction techniques is crucial. Whether it’s a concussion, another neurological injury or an orthopedic injury, they’re happening and must be addressed. The good news is that existing rules/limitations appear to be already having a positive effect, as there’s been a reduction in numbers of concussion sustained during practice.

However, I wonder about the possibility of unintended side effects from legislating these efforts. Is it possible that with very little ability to practice safe techniques with full contact and at full speed, there would be a paradoxical increase in the numbers of head or musculoskeletal injuries during actual games/competition? Will coaches “ramp up” the intensity of contact practices and expose players to higher numbers of more significant impacts during the brief, “allowable” practice contact times? Will otherwise interested and competent coaches and parents worry about the legal implications/risk, and stop volunteering — further negatively impacting access for kids who would otherwise have benefited from participation?

These concerns and questions aside, I do agree with the concept of moving from unlimited contact during preseason to having some limitation. There is merit to the way the NFL has approached this as well. They initially reviewed rates of preseason concussions among teams and provided specific education and review to organizations with higher rates. The NFL’s goal: reduce the number of concussive events by encouraging approach and activity changes. Early evidence supported its effectiveness, and the program is likely to be expanded to all teams in the future.

[See: How to Prevent — and Heal — Common CrossFit Injuries.]

High school football programs could emulate this approach. Instead of an arbitrary “blanket” policy of contact limitation, they could institute targeted education for coaches and teams with higher than average risk, and then teach them strategies to train their players with less risk and exposure. I also understand and agree with the concept that reducing the number of concussions may be the wrong point of focus. Sub-concussive hits are those that jar the brain, but not violently enough to result in a diagnosable concussion. Research has shown that these types of hits, especially when they repeatedly accumulate over time, can be dangerous and may lead to brain and neurological damage later in life. Decreasing numbers of sub-concussive blows appears to be as important or more important. This kind of understanding and insight among coaches, parents and other stakeholders is critical.

The California legislation includes additional requirements such as mandatory coach education, a concussion management plan and education regarding heat illness recognition/treatment — all of which are appropriate and applauded. But the focus (certainly the headlines) has remained on contact exposure.

[READ: Getting Back to Exercise After Injury.]

Unfortunately, though the approach to an injury risk-reduction solution is well-intended, I believe we are focusing on only half the equation. As a neurologist and sports neurology specialist, my real interest is in optimizing neurological health across the lifespan. That means doing everything we can to support vision, balance, focus, concentration, speed of mental processing, memory, pattern recognition and decision-making. That also means understanding the brain and nervous system’s role in strength, flexibility and endurance. These neurological contributions to performance are critical at every stage in life.

So, in addition to reducing neurological injury risk, I believe there is significant value in assessment and support of best neurological health and function. The time, effort and resources we spend limiting risk for those who happen to participate in a collision sport should be equaled by time, effort and resources being used to educate, monitor and optimize neurological function over time. Sports can and should act as an early introduction to these concepts among youth and adolescents. That’s what I mean by making sure we look at the bigger picture.

More from U.S. News

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How to Prevent — and Heal — Common CrossFit Injuries

Is Limiting Tackling During Youth Football Practice a Good Idea? originally appeared on usnews.com

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