Could Tackling Without Helmets Reduce Future Head Injuries in Football?

By Dan Peterson, TeamSnap's Sports Science Expert


In the search for solutions to the concussion epidemic in football, researchers are starting to wonder if the helmets that players wear are actually part of the problem. While they are meant to provide protection, they also give the wearer a false sense of security to the point of using them as a weapon against their oncoming opponent. 

Coaches are now teaching young players how to tackle properly without using their head but maybe that training would be much more effective if they wore no helmets at all. That was the hypothesis of Erik Swartz, professor and chair of the department of kinesiology at the University of New Hampshire.

He reported findings from the first year of a two-year research effort conducted with 50 players on the UNH football team, a Division I program. By training half of the group with a new helmet-less technique, their rate of head impacts (the main cause of concussions) was reduced by almost 30 percent over the control group throughout the season.

"The idea of taking off the football helmet during practice to reduce head impact may seem counterintuitive to the sport," said Dr. Swartz. "But the findings show that preventing head impacts, which can contribute to spine and head injuries like concussions, may be found in behavior modification like these drills."

First, Swartz divided the 50 players into two groups: an experimental and a control group. Each player had an xPatch head-impact sensor placed on the skin just behind the right ear. The xPatch monitors the frequency, location and acceleration of all head impacts.

The experimental group participated in tackling drills without helmets or shoulder pads twice per week in the preseason and once per week during the season. They were instructed by coaches on how to use their shoulders rather than their heads to make contact with a tackling dummy or a pad held by a teammate, going at about 50 percent speed.

The control group did not receive this instruction and just did normal, non-contact drills at the same time.

Over the course of the season, head impacts of the two groups were monitored across practices which included full contact scrimmages with helmets and shoulder pads. The group that learned to tackle without helmets recorded 28% fewer total impacts, indicating that they had learned how to reduce hits to their head.

"This behavior modification is not only about alleviating head impacts that can cause injuries now, but reducing the risk of concussive impacts that can lead to long-term complications later in life," said Dr. Swartz. "These helmetless drills could help to make it safer to play football."

The results were released online and will soon be published in the Journal of Athletic Training.

The current study will look at a second season of results to see if further helmet-less training continues to reduce head impacts, which can typically reach 1,000 during a season. Dr. Swartz is also expanding the research to high school players, hoping to see similar results from the training technique.

"The extent to which this intervention may yield similar outcomes in younger players with less experience and physical maturity is still unknown,” said Dr. Swartz. “We are currently in the first year of a high school study focused on four high schools in New Hampshire.”

Release Date: Sep 09 2016

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