Sports
4:49 pm
Sat May 10, 2014

Youth Football Clinics Try A New Angle To Prevent Concussions

Originally published on Sun May 11, 2014 11:00 pm

On a windy day in in Macon, Ga., dozens of second-graders are standing on a university football field, crowded around Atlanta Falcons rookie Terren Jones.

Jones is helping to lead a Heads Up Football clinic, one of hundreds held across the country this spring by the nonprofit USA Football. Primarily funded by the NFL, these clinics teach parents about proper helmet and shoulder-pad fitting, and kids as young as 6 learn how to avoid concussions from pros like Jones.

"Nobody wants to get concussions, because it sucks, and it's not fun," says Jones. "I've had a couple."

The Heads Up approach is simple. First, it modifies the typical stances players take when they're lined up before the snap: feet wider than usual; shoulder blades squeezed back and down; stance sunk into a low squat, with hands forward and backs at 45-degree angles to the ground.

Normally, players dip lower, diving head first into the opponent. With heads upright, even the sound of the impact is different.

Not everyone is convinced that the training will actually prevent concussions. Former NFL tight end Nate Jackson says it might work in practice, but the tips will all go out the window in a real game.

"They can easily talk about these steps and techniques to making a safe tackle, but really the most effective way to hit and to tackle is to shoot yourself into them with your head," Jackson says. "When there's a game happening, and you get put in that survival mode, you react and you go headfirst. You go with the most effective way to do it."

Still, doctors and scientists are hopeful the techniques will stick. Gerard Gioia, a neuropsychologist at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., says if kids learn these techniques early, they will become instinctive.

"You've been taught how to do this all along, and the same way we learn any kind of skill," Gioia says, "with enough practice and with enough appropriate coaching along the way, your best way of winning is to keep yourself in the game and to do this properly."

At the Heads Up drill, Tracey Weekley is watching her 12-year-old run into a tackle dummy twice his size. She says her son has already suffered two concussions while playing recreational football.

"I wish that every youth football, from middle school, high school and rec, would have to take this seminar," Weekley says. "But you have coaches that are teaching the way they were taught when they were playing football. So they're teaching, harder the hit, the better the hit."

Many coaches are getting the message, though. After pilot testing two years ago, more than 2,000 youth leagues have signed up. Thirty-five high schools nationwide are using the technique, and two of those teams won state championships.

Even the pros are buying in — theoretically. The NFL has added rules that mirror the Heads Up fundamentals, but the safest methods may not reach the professional level until the kids at Heads Up clinics grow up.

Copyright 2014 Georgia Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit http://www.gpb.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

If you're just joining us, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Concern about concussions in the NFL has trickled down to the ranks of youth football. Parents are scrambling to get the latest safety gear. Leagues are enacting new rules designed to limit those crushing hits. And now, the country's dominant youth football organization is pushing a new anti-concussion measure. It's not a helmet, not a rule, but a new way to tackle. Georgia Public Broadcasting's Jane Hammond reports.

JANE HAMMOND, BYLINE: On a windy day in Macon, Georgia, dozens of second-graders are standing on a university football field, crowded around Atlanta Falcons rookie Terren Jones. The pro football player is here to show these kids some new tricks.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTBALL CLINIC)

TERREN JONES: One, two, say set.

UNIDENTIFIED BOYS: Set.

JONES: Here we go. First group up.

HAMMOND: Jones is helping to lead a Heads Up Football clinic. It's one of hundreds held across the country this spring by the nonprofit USA Football. Primarily funded by the NFL, these clinics teach parents about proper helmet and shoulder pad fitting, and kids as young as 6 years old learn how to avoid concussions from pros like Terren Jones.

JONES: Nobody wants to get concussions because it sucks and it's not fun. I've had a couple.

HAMMOND: The Heads Up approach is simple. First, it modifies the typical stances players take when they're lined up before the snap.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTBALL CLINIC)

JONES: Feet. Uh-uh, guys. Be loud, be loud. Feet.

HAMMOND: Feet are wider than usual. Kids are taught to squeeze shoulder blades back and down.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTBALL CLINIC)

JONES: Sink.

HAMMOND: They sink into a low squat with hands forward, and backs at 45-degree angles to the ground.

(SOUNDBITE OF COACHES AT PRACTICE)

HAMMOND: Normally, players dip lower, diving head first into the opponent. Here's what a conventional hit sounds like.

(SOUNDBITE OF HITTING PADS)

HAMMOND: Now, here's a tackle using the heads up technique.

(SOUNDBITE OF HITTING PADS)

HAMMOND: Not everyone is convinced that these tips can actually prevent concussions. Former NFL tight end Nate Jackson says it might work in practice, but the training will all go out the window in a real game.

NATE JACKSON: They can easily talk about these steps and techniques to making a safe tackle, but really the most effective way to hit and to tackle is to shoot yourself into them with your head. But when there's a game happening, and you get put in that survival mode, and you react and you go headfirst. You go with the most effective way to do it.

HAMMOND: Still, doctors and scientists are hopeful the techniques will help. Gerard Gioia is a neuropsychologist at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington. He says if kids learn these techniques early, they will become instinctive.

GERARD GIOIA: You've been taught how to do this all along in the same way we learn any kind of skill, with enough practice and with enough appropriate coaching along the way, your best way of winning the game is to keep yourself in the game...

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTBALL CLINIC)

HAMMOND: At the Heads Up drill, Tracey Weekley is watching her 12-year-old run into a tackle dummy twice his size. She says her son has already suffered two concussions while playing rec football.

TRACEY WEEKLEY: I wish that every youth football, from middle school, high school and rec, would have to take this seminar. But you have coaches that are teaching the way they were taught when they were playing football. So they're teaching, harder the hit, the better the hit.

HAMMOND: Coaches are getting the message. After pilot testing two years ago, more than 2,000 youth leagues have signed up. Thirty-five high schools nationwide are using the technique, two of those teams won state championships. Even the pros are buying in - theoretically. The NFL has added rules that mirror the Heads Up fundamentals, but the safest methods may not reach the professional level until these kids grow up.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTBALL CLINIC)

HAMMOND: For NPR News, I'm Jane Hammond in Macon, Georgia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.