My sons play football. I say this because I think some people are foolish enough to think and possibly say that I don’t care about the welfare of the kids I coach. I don’t think anyone would be foolish enough to say I don’t care about my sons. Those who know me well know I try to treat my players as if they were my own sons.
Within the past year two of my better players have been permanently pulled from the contact sports I coach (football and lacrosse) due, at least in part, to head injuries incurred during practices or games. I have supported these players, and their families in making this decision. In each instance the player suffered high level and repeated concussions. It affected our teams’ success, and tears were shed as playing careers ended prematurely, but it was the right thing to do.
With that being said, I want to address this issue. Particularly since it is now back in the spotlight with the recent death of football legend Junior Seau.
First, know that this issue has never been out of our spotlight as an athletic staff. We deal with the concussion issue on a near daily basis as coaches, athletic directors, athletic trainers; and even as guidance counselors, teachers and administrators. Our state government and state athletic body have established head injury protocols. We have policies in effect for before concussive events, immediately following an incident and for following up afterwards. Information is shared between all parties including parents and players. Tests on procedures are taken by coaches and forms are required to be signed by parents. An elaborate process is in place to ensure a player is ready to return to play. We work hard to try to err on the side of caution. We take the issue seriously and our priorities are in the right place.
I will not get into the specifics of those policies, but they are available and if someone would like a copy I will send it to them or let them know where it is available.
Likewise, I will not provide a defense of the advantages of playing sports (more concussions occur in soccer because more kids play soccer; this isn’t just a football problem). Those benefits are also well documented.
I will also add that banning kids from participating in athletics would be applying the same logic as driving 35 mph on the turnpike. Playing any sport has inherent risks.
Instead, my main purpose in writing this is to discuss what more we can do at the high school level of football to protect our players.
It’s time we make some changes to the game. For those hesitant to change, I warn them that if we don’t change we might find ourselves without a game. We lose kids every year, as potential players and their parents fear injury.
It’s time we as coaches step to the forefront because we best know the kids, the risks, and the benefits of the game. Our worst nightmare is not to have one of our kids suffer a debilitating head injury, but rather to see such an injury take place knowing we could have done more to prevent it.
As such, I offer six suggestions:
1. Limit exposure to contact– This will reduce the opportunities for concussive events. Limiting contact can be accomplished in two ways. First, set rules limiting the practice days in which player on player contact is permitted to two practice days per week once the season starts and alternating days during pre-season. Less exposure to contact, less incidents. Second, change the rules so there are less plays in each game. This can be done without shortening the actual game time. The current trend in football is to run no huddle/hurry up offenses that are structured so that the offense can run as many plays as possible during a game. Offenses do this by hustling back to the line of scrimmage and snapping the ball as soon as possible. I suggest we limit the use of no huddle/hurry up style of play until the final two minutes remaining in each half. We do this by simply making a rule requiring the offense to wait a minimum of 30 seconds from the end of the previous play before the ball can be snapped. This will reduce the total number of plays.
2. No hands on the ground prior to the snap– This will reduce helmet to helmet contact by linemen. One must remember that linemen hit and get hit every play. The vast majority of contact in football takes place on the line of scrimmage. This is an area which is largely ignored by those who do not have a thorough understanding of the game.
3. No hands on ground before a player crosses the line of scrimmage– This will prevent linemen from just starting a play on their feet and then immediately getting low after the snap.
4. Two hand touch on receivers between the hashes– Anyone who has seen a football game will understand this suggestion.
5. No tackling below the waist-Some coaches teach the gator tackle technique as their basic tackling technique. This is a form of tackling in which the defender purposefully tackles below the waist. This is detrimental because tacklers are then exposed to blows from knees and shoulders to the head. These types of instances create situations in which devastating head contact may take place. Instead, teams would be required to adopt the teaching of chest to chest tackling. We changed our tackling style to chest tackling rather than shoulder or below the waist tackling about six or seven years ago and found we had less instances of concussions. I also know we lost at least one game because of this as we lacked leverage to bring down a particularly strong ball carrier; but we felt it was in the best interest of our players. We avoid tackling below the waist whenever possible. We have even held clinics with our local youth players to teach them and their coaches how to properly utilize and instruct the chest tackle.
“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” – Charles Darwin
Now nothing I suggest will be implemented unless people find the courage to step up and speak up. I will propose these changes to athletic administrators and my local coaches association. I do so with the hope that they be further proposed for discussion by the governing bodies of athletics in our state.
As one coach, I am not in the position to unilaterally adopt these changes. We will play by the rules as established. However, with help, we can initiate a movement to further protect our players.
We need to work together and lead the way. If we do, we can set an example for the rest of the country and protect our players; our sons.
Things change. It’s time we initiate that change. We may not be able to do more as individual coaches, but we could do more by working together to alter the rules of the game.
Personally, I just want to be able to look my players and their parents in the eye and say I did what I could.