Numerous new regulations have been put into place over the last few years to protect young athletes from concussions during competition. However, a large number of these recent rules overlook the place where young athletes are most at risk for brain injury.
According to a new study from Virginia Tech’s Center for Injury Biomechanics, young football players under the age of 14 are more likely to experience the high-magnitude head impacts that typically trigger concussions during practice than during games.
Specifically, one common type of tackling drill was associated with the highest risk of high-magnitude collisions in this age group.
“High-magnitude head impacts are more likely to result in concussion,” said study co-author Steven Rowson, assistant professor at the Center for Injury Biomechanics.
The new study published in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Pediatrics is particularly notable because it focuses on an age group typically overlooked in brain injury research. Volumes of research have been conducted into brain injuries in high school, college, and professional football players. However, up to 70% of all football players in the United States are under the age of 14.
More worrying, these young athletes may also be at a higher risk for brain injuries than their older counterparts.
“We know that kids in general — particularly adolescents — take longer on average than adults to recover from concussion,” said Anthony Kontos, research director from the Sports Medicine Concussion Program at the University of Pittsburgh. “We don’t yet know the effects of concussions on the maturation and developmental processes in the brains of children and adolescents.”
At the outset of the study, the researchers aimed to determine when football players between the ages of 6 to 14 suffer the most head impacts. To do this, the team equipped 34 players from two teams in Blacksburg, Va., with helmet sensors that measure the movement of the head during impacts.
These sensors tracked nearly 7,000 total hits. Approximately 6% (408 hits) were categorized as the hits with highest accelerations. Approximately 86% of these high-impact hits occurred during tackling or blocking drills, despite these drills only accounting for 22% of practice time.
“We found that impact rates between practices and games were largely consistent,” said study author Eamon Campolettano, a graduate student at Virginia Tech.
“However, teams practice significantly more than they play games. This means that players are exposed to a greater number of head impacts in practice than in games,” Campolettano said.
When evaluating the data, the team noticed one specific drill produced significantly more head impacts than others. The drill called “King of the Circle”, was estimated to produce 25 to 68 head impacts per hour.
“In King of the Circle, all players but one stand in a large circle,” Campolettano explained. “The remaining player is in the middle of the circle and rushes at a player on the perimeter. Each player gets three opportunities to be the rusher in this drill.”
The researchers say teams may benefit from eliminating this drill because the rate of head impacts “are very different than what players experience during games.” However, they caution against immediately doing away with other drills associated with high-magnitude head impacts.
While high-magnitude head impacts may be more likely to cause concussions, traumatic brain injury can occur at lower magnitudes than those focused on in the study.
Kontos notes “there are times when very high magnitudes do not result in a concussion.” In fact, no players involved in the research experienced a concussion during the study.
Instead of getting rid of tackling drills entirely, the scientists say “teams and coaches can use progressive approaches to teach proper tackling technique as advocated by USA Football and other programs.”
“Importantly, we want to teach kids safe tackling technique with limited exposure to impacts to the brain. But it should be in a way that allows kids to then tackle properly when they play games, which are faster and involve a more dynamic environment,” Kontos said.