One Man’s (Athletic Trainer) Critical Eye and Observation From Week 1

It’s the beginning of high school football season across this glorious land.  I honestly love nothing more than getting back on the gridiron with the high school kids.  There are so many intangibles that the beginning of any sport brings; and in our massive consumption of football world this sport seems to bring a lot of people together, quickly.  You will see a lot of this “love for the sport” breeding through my posts and rants – the same love I have for all sports.  Seeing kids overcome hurdles and demons and using sport/activity to express their selves is awesome.  Seeing boys and girls using sports as a conduit to become better men and women by learning virtues such as: integrity, commitment, discipline and expecting to succeed.

Over the years I have obviously developed a keen eye for concussion as it relates to sport.  There is no greater sport for this injury to occur at my high school than football.  I have been blessed with coaches and administrators that listen to my input regarding overall safety, particularly when it comes to concussion.  But this past week I noticed something that perhaps I had seen plenty of times before, but it just finally hit me.

It has to do with the practice collisions and how things that start innocently enough can change and create issues.  I must give my head coach massive credit for being on the same wave length and even finishing my sentences when we were discussing my observations.  It shows, to me, that he has the best interest of the players in mind – and he wants a fully healthy team.  Secondly I happened to read a recent research paper about data collection on forces in football (while writing up my Sensor Overload post).

In a simple “technique” tackling drill two players were approximately five yards apart.  To either side of the players were agility bags spaced at about 4 yards.  The purpose of the drill was for the ball carrier to angle run to either bag, while the defensive player was to use proper technique and wrap up the ball carrier – not taking him to the ground.  The players were outfitted in helmets and shoulder pads only.  The players were directed to begin at “3/4” speed and the ball carrier was to be willing to let the defender use current “proper technique” to achieve the form and fit for a tackle (face mask up, wrap-lift-drive through the man).  It started all well and good, and the players naturally began to increase their speed/effort as they became comfortable with the drill.  The drill lasted five minutes from setup to finish.

Upon completion of the drill – rather near end of the drill – I observed one and was sent two others (there were three groups) by coaches for injury evaluation.  All of the players in this instance were being evaluated for concussion.  Nothing unusual in this day and age; as safety is a top priority.  But I was a bit concerned as to how the drill evolved, but couldn’t figure out why it seemingly took a drastic turn late in the process.

Thanks to the head coach and his suggestion for review we found the following occurred;

  • As speed of drill picked up the starting distance between the two players (originally five yards) had gotten further apart, nearly ten at completion.
  • As drill was progressing the agility bags naturally, with contact, spread further apart.
  • The runners became unwilling to allow a tackle and naturally used their ball carrying instincts to avoid the tackle by dropping shoulder and giving less area for a wrap.
  • The tacklers tried to lower level and keep face mask up but found it, late in proceedings, inefficient and reverted – which was quickly and correctly remediated by coaching staff – to a less idea angle of approach for the head.

The point being here that the forces exhibited during this drill were well within acceptable to begin but through natural evolution of drill and competition became more risky.  I don’t think it was the fault of the players, as they have to perform.  Nor the coaches as they did the best to teach and monitor/move bags players.  What is most striking about this instance is that I have seen this happen at every school I have been at, many times with drills.  But it just seemed awkward that we had three almost simultaneous situations that warranted the same evaluation.

After review and discussion with the head coach a comment was made by another staff member that this was the technique that is being pushed as the “proper” way to tackle.  Which reaffirmed my belief that there is no perfect or more safe way to attenuate collisions in this sport.  It is so dynamic and the chance you have a willing opponent that will allow you to have the proper technique to tackle them is about ZERO!

Further review with all the coaches during the drill revealed that each player that was assessed by me (one was possible concussion the other two (one had an unauthorized helmet modification – took air out) were held from practice and took SCAT 3 within 24 hours and passed, but sat the next day at practice as a precaution) took a secondary type force during the tackle.  One player received a knee to the face mask, and the other two hit their head on the ground after being unable to make the proper tackle during collision.

I guess the point of this post is to catharticly document this for others to learn from.  The best teaching point I can implore is to review the drills, especially ones that seem to be or suddenly produce high injury issues; be it for the head or for other parts of the body.  Secondly, I believe that having open and honest communication lines provides great benefits for any situation like this.

We will be doing the drill again.  We will make sure there are starting cones not just lines, keep bags from moving off the spot, less splitting of players (more recovery), and a coach will be responsible for the integrity of the drill.


3 thoughts on “One Man’s (Athletic Trainer) Critical Eye and Observation From Week 1

  1. Matt Chaney August 21, 2014 / 07:39

    Excellent report and comments, Dustin. Indeed, the invalid, so-called proper contact or technique, re-masked and sold under various monikers since 1967, from ‘head up’ to Heads Up, will never work. I greatly sympathize with the coaches and more officials who are now legally bound to this fallacy, as a ‘standard of care’ in organizing dangerous head-ramming football.

  2. BryanATC August 21, 2014 / 11:41

    I think another thing to look at is the fact that these so called “thud” drills are all allowable every day. Even in states that limit “contact”. Most (haven’t verified every states rule, but all the ones I’ve read so far) only count “contact” for in-season limits as live speed with players being tackled to the ground. As long as the “to the ground” part is not an explicit part of the drill then it does not count. There are not many coaches who do “to the ground” tackling in practice any more, so how many less impacts are we really preventing?

    Another facade of protection being extended to these children that in no way really limit their exposure to concussion level events.

  3. Recently received an email from a former and well known NFL player who reported that early in his career he suffered his 2 worse concussions following head-up like guidelines for tackling.

    He subsequently abandoned that clearly dangerous tackling approach.

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