Head injuries in football players have become a national concern due to their link to brain and spinal damage. High school and college football players can each sustain more than 1,000 impacts in a season. Researchers have sought ways to reduce the risk of head-impact injury.
A new study in the Journal of Athletic Training, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association’s scientific publication, investigated the effectiveness of helmetless blocking and tackling drills to reduce head-impact exposure in an NCAA Division I football program.
Read the full NATA press release: Helmetless Drills Lead to Decreased Head Impacts
This study showed a 28-percent reduction in head impacts during practices and games. The results are from the first year of a two-year study in which 50 NCAA Division 1 football players at the University of New Hampshire were assigned to an intervention (25 athletes) or control (25 athletes) group.
The study proceeded as follows: The intervention group participated in five-minute tackling drills without their helmets and shoulder pads as part of the Helmetless Tackling Training (HuTT) program. The drills occurred twice per week during preseason practices and once per week throughout the competitive season, which lasted 16 weeks. The control group performed non-contact football skills with no change to their routine.
In order to monitor them, the athletes were given head-impact patch sensors worn on the skin and new helmets. Supervision was done by members of the football coaching staff. At the end of the season, the intervention group experienced an average of 30-percent fewer impacts per exposure than the control group.
Following the study, lead author of the study Erik E. Swartz stated, “This intervention also eliminates a false sense of security a player may feel when wearing a helmet. Younger players with less experience may require modifications to this intervention to realize a positive effect. While more research is needed, our results do show a reduction in head impacts during our one season of testing.”
The idea of removing the football helmet for discrete and regular periods during practice to reduce head impact is uncommon to the sport, wrote the authors. Their findings offer an example of the risk-compensation phenomenon, and may also help to explain the behavior of spearing, a technique where a player makes a tackle that leads with the crown of his helmet.
“A football helmet is designed to protect players from traumatic head injury,” wrote the study’s authors, "but it also enables them to initiate and sustain impacts because of the protection it affords. While improving protective equipment in and of itself will not resolve the risk of concussion and spine injury in football, the solution may be found in behavior modification.”
“Should future research replicate our findings, the eventual adoption of helmetless-tackling training may improve public health and decrease the associated economic burden by reducing football-related head and neck injuries and the risk of long-term complications.”