The action at Pop Warner football practices is lower-impact this season. In an attempt to prevent concussions, the national youth sport organization announced rule changes in June that limit contact during practices.
As teams begin to take to the field, response to the less-aggressive practice approach has been positive.
Pop Warner’s new rules ban full-speed, head-on blocking or tackling drills involving players more than three yards apart. They also limit contact drills to 40 minutes per practice or no more than one-third of the total weekly practice time.
The organization, officially known as Pop Warner Little Scholars, provides football programs for children ages 5 to 15.
It already had a rule in place that prohibits what are considered unsafe blocking and tackling techniques, including chop blocking and spearing.
The latest rules were spurred by the results of a Virginia Tech research project on head contact in youth-level players, said Jon Butler, Pop Warner’s executive director.
“The head researcher said in his notes that about 95 percent of the contacts are like an aggressive pillow fight at that age, but 5 percent are of concern. And the two areas of greatest concern from their research were the amount of hits to the head and second of all, full-speed head-on drills, so our two new rules specifically address those two issues,” he said.
The number of concussions Pop Warner players receive are tracked through the organization’s insurance company. Those numbers are very low, Butler said.
John Pezzulo, doctor of osteopathic medicine at Scotia-Glenville Family Medicine, said every concussion is of great concern.
“The old fashioned-days of ‘you get your bell rung’ and you’re OK and you go back to play are scary. And there’s a lot of science behind the fact that even a mild concussion is a very serious brain injury, and the symptoms are not to be taken lightly,” he said.
Short-term symptoms of a concussion can include chronic headaches, amnesia, difficulty concentrating and mood disturbances like depression or anxiety. Long-term consequences can be permanent brain damage or even death.
Scotia-Glenville Family Medicine doctors serve as school physicians for the Scotia-Glenville and Ballston Spa school districts. The doctors have a formal policy that helps recognize an injured student-athlete and a protocol that has to be followed before the student can return to play.
Pezzulo said he sees lots of young football players come in with concussions.
Brain injuries aren’t all caused by a single, severe blow to the head, he pointed out.
“Over the past several years, there’s a lot of new research going into head injuries and because of that, they’re finding [evidence] of chronic and permanent damage, and it can stem back not to just one major hit but a compilation of multiple small hits,” Pezzulo said.
Children are at greater risk for long-term damage from multiple, small hits than adults are, he noted.
Pop Warner’s reduced focus on contact drills should not only help to keep players safe, but should also lead to improved skills, said Joe Lucas, president of Saratoga Pop Warner.
“I think it will help the kids out because I think we’ll be able to spend more time teaching proper tackling techniques on how to avoid concussions and head-to-head collisions,” Lucas said.
Michael Gibson, vice president of Schenectady-Belmont Pop Warner, said the new rules are a good proactive measure.
“There’s no reason kids should be running at each other at top speed, smashing into each other head-first anyway, especially in practice,” he said.
But the new rules won’t do anything to help prevent concussions during actual games, Gibson cautioned.
“In games, there’s going to be head-on collisions, only because you’re playing offense-defense, the guy’s running at you, not away from you. Nine times out of 10, he’s running at you during the game,” he said.
Lucas said he believes the new rules, over time, could help to make the entire sport safer.
“They are kids. As they grow up and they grow older and older, then you know what? They can hit each other a little bit more,” he said. “But right now, let’s go out and have some fun, and let’s teach these kids how to play properly, and if they start learning now, at such a young age, what to do and how to tackle properly and watch the head-to-head contact, that can help everybody down the line from high school football to college football to the pros football because eventually some of these kids will make it to the NFL, hopefully.”