The 2017 youth football season has come to a close in Wisconsin, but one conversation concerning the sport continues to linger across the nation causing many to question the future of American football.
Boston University's Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) Center published a study in Nature's Translational Psychiatry in September 2017 that found the most direct association to date between participation in youth tackle football before age 12 and impaired mood and behavior later in life. According to the BU School of Medicine's website, researchers studied a total of 214 American football players — 43 participants played only through high school and 103 played college football. The study was conducted through telephone-administered cognitive tests and participants completed online measures of depression, behavioral regulation, apathy and executive functioning.
Once the tests were completed, BU's team compared the results from former players who began playing football before the age of 12 to those of players whose football careers began at the age of 12 or later in life, and the findings soon became a hot topic. BU's website writes, "The study showed that participation in youth football before age 12 increased the risk of problems with behavioral regulation, apathy and executive functioning by two-fold and increased the risk of clinically elevated depression scores by three-fold."
The study goes on to say that although there's a link between players being exposed to head-to-head contact in youth football before the age of 12 and short- and long-term neurological problems, more research needs to be done on the topic before any rule or policy changes regarding the youth sport can be made.
The BU's CTE Center's study is not the first to bring youth football into question and will certainly not be the last. As head injury awareness continues to put the sport of football on the hot seat, coaches at every level of play will be forced to reflect on the way they teach the sport.
The Prescott Community Recreation (PCR) youth football coaches have responded to the growing concern regarding youth football by participating in the USA Football's Heads Up Football program, which is designed to preserve the safety of young players.
Pat Block, PCR's Heads Up coach who oversees the training of Prescott's youth coaches, said PCR just completed their third year of participating in the safety program.
"We really got into it as a response to the injury concerns about playing football," Block said about his program's enrollment in Heads Up. "After learning more about the Heads Up program we decided it was not only the right thing to do from a safety standpoint, but we also wanted to leverage the program to positively influence kids and parents to continue to play football."
Shari Durch, an athletic training coordinator out of Allina Health who works with high school football teams in the Pierce County area, emphasizes the importance of young athletes learning proper tackling technique and practicing it so it becomes habit for them. Durch believes Heads Up is a "great resource for parents and athletes."
According to Block, the Heads Up certification process is a series of online training that doesn't just focus on concussion-related topics. Heads Up spends just a much time training coaches on the proper techniques to block and tackle, hydration and heat sickness awareness, equipment fitting, and how to expose kids to contact properly. PCR has taken even further measures by requiring that anyone that gives any type of instruction in their youth football program, such as parent volunteers, also go through the certification process. The program has also implemented better equipment management practices particularly in regards to helmets and how they fit the players and when they need to be removed from service due to damage or age.
In Prescott, first-through-fourth graders are able to play flag football whereas fifth and sixth graders are eligible for both flag and tackle football. Some youth programs have responded to the recent uproar regarding head injuries by only offering flag football programs, but Block and other PCR coaches have also found some flaws with this response.
"While there are also many positive aspects to flag football, PCR found that as the kids got older the flag games got rougher," Block said. "Kids were basically tackling each other and the blocking was not only very aggressive, but very poor in technique."
Because of this, PCR decided to move these kids into a tackle program where proper fundamentals could be taught and proper gear could be worn to better protect them. Block said there remains an annual discussion about when the right time to begin tackle is, but after sending out a series of surveys, discussions with nearby communities, and a lot of independent research into the topic by PCR football committee members, the PCR football committee concluded that the right time to start tackle is in fifth and sixth grade.
At this age, Block said, "The trained, volunteer coaching resources are the most bountiful, and there is the ability to have a great impact on the techniques and awareness of the players before they enter their seventh and eighth grade years where kids start to mature and grow at much different rates."
The BU study says that male brains undergo a key period of development between the ages of 10-12 years old, which can cause parents to be on the fence about signing their sons up to play tackle football during a crucial time in their maturation. Block has run into this hesitation from parents and said there have been plenty of instances where parents in the Prescott community have wanted to learn more about what PCR is doing to promote athlete safety.
"We now can tell [parents] about our affiliation with the USA Football/Heads Up program, the training and certifications our coaches carry, and how we are working hard on taking the head and neck out of any football-related techniques," Block said. "We discuss how we ease the kids into contact and always try to put them in a position they can be comfortable in."
If parents are still skeptical about the program, Block invites them to come to parent meetings and to watch practices to get a better understanding of how PCR coaches are protecting their athletes.
Block's players go through three weeks of practice before they play a full game. At practice, parents will see that the first week is with helmets only and contact against bags. The second week is with top halves (helmets and shoulder pads) only and the contact level is against bags with some thud and wrap up (no tackling to the ground) against similar-sized players. Players don't wear full equipment until week three where live tackling is limited to only a few minutes per practice and only with similar-sized kids matched against each other.
"If at any time a player or parent is unsure if football is for them, they can stop participating in that drill or all together if they wish," Block said.
Block has found that his program's transparency has not only helped parents get a good grasp on the safety precautions PCR football has in place, but it also allows them to better understand the positives that come with playing football. He also realizes that some parents may believe the risks associated with contact sports outweigh the benefits that come from playing football, but says there are risks associated with anything in life.
"If a kid is not playing football, hockey or wrestling, what else are they doing? I believe there are just as many risks for kids riding bikes, skateboarding or playing on the playground," Block said.
And an even greater risk than contact sports in Block's eyes: kids who don't participate in any extracurriculars.
"It is also my belief that a generation of kids doing [nothing] and playing video games all day or being left unattended and un-mentored/coached is even a greater risk," Block said.
Block and the PCR staff will leave recent concerns about the safety of youth football unignored by continuing to provide and promote a safe environment for kids to play the sport loved by many.
As Block said, "Just like with many of the team sports, football can provide so many benefits to today's youth in the form of physical exercise, teamwork, accountability, coach ability, friendships and competitiveness to just name a few."