Football remains one of the most popular sports for young athletes. But concerns about football injuries are at an all-time high. Many of these concerns focus on head and neck injuries, which account for approximately 5 to 13 percent of overall football injuries. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), on Oct. 25, released a policy statement on tackling in youth football.
Dr. William Meehan, from the Boston Children’s Hospital Sports Medicine Division, co-wrote the statement. He offers five recommendations to help keep youth players safe and healthy and minimize their risk for head and neck injuries.
Play by the rules.
Make sure coaches and officials enforce football rules. Research shows that a significant number of concussions and catastrophic injuries occur because of improper and illegal contact, says Meehan. There should be zero tolerance for head-first hits. Meehan, along with the AAP, suggests stronger sanctions, up to expulsion from the game, for offenders.
Work with your youth football program to reduce the number of hits to the head.
The health effects of sub-concussive blows remain unclear, but limiting impacts to the head may reduce the risk of long-term health problems such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Get familiar with the pros and cons of delaying the age at which tackling is introduced.
Though delaying the introduction of tackling would likely curb the risk of injuries at younger ages, the risks might be higher when tackling is introduced at older ages. That’s because older players are stronger, bigger, and faster, and if they have not previously learned how to tackle and absorb a tackle, they may be at increased risk of injury.
No matter what age tackling is introduced, players should be instructed in proper tackling techniques. But delaying the tackling age prompts a catch-22. “It may be very difficult to teach these skills in a noncontact situation,” notes Meehan.
Build neck strength.
Strength and conditioning exercises that build the neck muscles are likely to reduce a player’s risk of concussion. That’s because a stronger neck may limit the acceleration of the head after impact, which is one factor contributing to concussion, explains Meehan.
Advocate for athletic trainers.
The presence of athletic trainers during football games and practice may help reduce the incidence of injuries. Athletic trainers provide medical management to injured athletes, but also ensure proper hydration, warm-up and injury prevention measures.
Download the Boston Children’s Sports Medicine Football Injury Prevention Guide.