The Oregon high school football season is here, with several late-August jamborees leading up to the first varsity games, set for early September. As has been the case for the past several years, there is a renewed focus on player safety for the upcoming season, namely reducing head-to-head hits and resulting concussions.
High school football games generally last two to three hours, but fewer than 20 minutes of that time actually involves live play. With nine regular-season games between now and the end of October, most football players (who typically line up only on either offensive or defensive downs) can expect fewer than 90 minutes of full-speed contact per season while battling under the Friday night lights.
By contrast, that same amount of contact can be experienced during a single week of practice.
While most fans focus on football games, coaches, players and youth sports organizers know that concussions also can happen in practice. In 2014, the Oregon School Activities Association implemented a new rule that limited contact in practice to three days a week.
By the third week of practice, which usually falls during the week of the first game, coaches can schedule 90 minutes of contact across those three days.
Contact in practice is not the same as contact in games. There's less pressure to make a tackle, fewer open-field opportunities to hit a player, and reduced physicality in a relaxed environment against teammates.
Like many of his colleagues, AJ Robinson, the head coach at Churchill High School in Eugene, takes additional steps to ensure that practices are safe. "I'm not a very good coach if all of my best players are hurt and can't play in the game," he said.
Even so, a recent analysis of concussions in Oregon high school sports shows that concussions do occur in practice. As part of its 18-month "Rattled" investigation, Pamplin Media Group and InvestigateWest requested concussion records from all 235 Oregon high schools. Only half of the schools responded, and of those that did, the records often were incomplete. But the data tracked 41 concussions in which a time and location were specified. Of those 41, seven (or 17%) happened in practice.
Repeated contact a concern
Concussion prevention techniques generally strive to eliminate the gasp-inducing head-to-head hits — collisions that occur most frequently in games. However, multiple minor, frequently forgotten head bumps that are common in practice also can damage the brain (see sidebar).
Research conducted by the Cleveland Clinic in 2013 exposed the danger of what's known as subconcussive hits. The Cleveland Clinic's findings suggest that football practice could be as dangerous as games because of rapid, repeated exposures from contact drills.
Veteran coaches look back at how the danger of practices, long unrecognized, impacted the sport earlier in their careers.
Terry Summerfield, head coach at Barlow High School in Gresham, estimates that when he began his coaching career three decades ago, about 70% of concussions happened during practice.
"That's just ridiculous," said Summerfield, a master trainer for USA Football's Heads Up safety program.
Robinson, who was an assistant coach at West Albany from 2011 to 2014, said that if nearly three-fourths of concussions happen in live-action practice drills, the next step is obvious.
"That's an easy decision in my eyes," he said. "We can eliminate 75% of concussions just by not hitting each other live in practice."
Five contact levels
These coaches, and others, are altering practice plans to reduce head injuries, using USA Football's recommended lower levels of contact in place of live-action drills. An athlete's body is no longer the experimental subject when tackling in practice.
USA Football established five levels of contact in 2015:
— Air: Players run drills unopposed without any contact with a bag or player.
— Bags: Players run drills with contact only against a bag.
— Control: Drills keep assigned-speed contact with other players above the waist. Players remain on their feet with a predetermined winner.
— Thud: Without a predetermined winner, contact with other players stays above the waist at a limited speed and a quick whistle ends the drill with players still on their feet.
— Live action: Drills are run at gamelike speed. It is the only time players are taken to ground.
Thud and live-action drills are the two methods of full contact allowed by the OSAA in the three days and 90 minutes of contact per week.
"We probably are in 'Thud' maybe 20 minutes," said Summerfield of his Tuesday and Wednesday practices. "There are a lot of things that we can do as coaches to create higher-level intensity contact, without hitting each other, that is safe for the athlete."
Summerfield believes most Oregon high schools follow a practice plan similar to his, which doesn't come close to reaching the 90-minute contact limit.
Like Summerfield, Churchill High head coach Robinson stays below the limit. He said live tackling doesn't play a big role in most Oregon high school practices and "it definitely doesn't in our program."
Oregon's training rule
In addition to the OSAA rule, Oregon is one of only two states (Washington is the other) to require all high school football coaches to get Heads Up certified before the season. There are several Player Safety Coach Clinics available for coach certifications between May and July.
Summerfield, along with two other master trainers, certify one player safety coach per school at these regional clinics. Those coaches then impart the same information to their coaching staffs, whose members all take an additional online certification test.
Although Oregon doesn't track the concussion data collected by each school, coaches interviewed for this article say the adjustments made to football practices are working to reduce head injuries in practices. They say that emphasizing proper tackling form and limiting head-to-head contact in practices should reduce the number of concussions suffered during competitions as well, making the game of football safer for young athletes.
Nate Mann is a student at the University of Oregon. This article is related to his work at the UO School of Journalism and Communication's Media Center for Science and Technology, which seeks to advance public understanding of scientific discoveries and technological advancements.
Bruising the brain
Rapid, less-dramatic hits to the head can cause damage
A concussion occurs when the brain rattles within the skull and gets bruised.
Any impact to the head disturbs the balance of the brain's metabolites (sodium, calcium, potassium, etc.) needed to fix damaged neurons. The body tries to maintain equilibrium in the brain environment by fluctuating the amount of each metabolite, creating a seesaw effect. This seesaw effect happens to a smaller degree in the event of a subconcussive hit, meaning the body needs less time to stabilize its metabolites and heal any damaged neurons, but needs time, nonetheless.
Multiple rapid subconcussive hits, like those suffered in contact drills during practice, can accumulate to generate the metabolic imbalance of a diagnosable concussion. These brain injuries don't exhibit the detectable signs that a major head-to-head hit does, suggesting that concussions can go undiagnosed in practice.
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