Aggressive practices several times a day including full-on contact drills are no more on the football fields of Georgia high schools as coaches and medical professionals continue to look for ways to lessen concussions and brain injuries.
Last year, the Georgia High School Association set limits on the amount of full contact during practices as one way to reduce the number of concussions.
The concern for concussions trickled down to high school athletics in recent years after several retired NFL players sued the league in multi-billion dollars lawsuits alleging they were not warned of the serious risks of brain injuries.
“Back then, players were just considered to be ‘shaken up’ or they got ‘dinged’ or had their ‘bell rung,’” said Dr. David Marshall, Sports Medicine Medical Director at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “But the long-term effects are multiple.”
Marshall, whose specialties include treating young athletes with concussions, said he sees numerous concussion patients at the kick off of high school football season. Last year he treated about 600 young athletes for concussions.
“I just had three already this morning,” he said on a recent weekday shortly after noon.
Full contact is limited to 45 minutes per day and 135 minutes per week in preseason, and then to 30 minutes per day and 90 per week in the regular season, said Marist School Coach Alan Chadwick, who has led the football squad for more than 30 years.
Also, during preseason, practices with full-contact drills cannot take place over three consecutive days. During any twice-daily practice, only one session can include full contact.
During the regular season, full-contact practice is only allowed during three practices a week.
“I think first and foremost this has had a positive effect,” Chadwick said. At the same time, the players are just not as good as they should be due to less on-the-field training, he said.
“We’re not fundamentally very good right now,” he said. “The game has changed a lot. We’re still old-school and like to run the ball down the hill,” he said.
Now coaches spend more time enforcing proper technique when hitting but also using no-contact or control drills to run plays. Players hitting bags or running full-speed and then coming to a stop before striking anyone are examples of controlled drills.
“It’s a balancing act. We’ve had to come up with more ways for the players to practice at full-speed without contact,” he said. “The players are adjusting.”
Players now watch a lot more film and study plays and techniques than in the past, Chadwick said.
“It’s still taking some getting used to,” he said. “There’s the consequence and the tradeoff [to limited contact practices]. And right now we’re not using proper techniques in blocking and tackling.”
The team and coaches have to try to create a “balancing act” between a good workout that will translate to skills on the field during an actual game and a safe workout with teammates that includes less hitting.
“We’re using what we can to control drills,” Chadwick said.
Coaches are also required each year to take an online course on the risks of concussions and how to recognize and help athletes if necessary.
The NFL has tried to reassure parents and youth athletes that concussions are on the decline. A study conducted last year by the NFL-funded Heads Up Football, a program designed to teach coaches safer tackling skills, showed the program reducing injuries by 76 percent and concussions by about 30 percent, according to a July 27 story in the New York Times.
However, a review by the New York Times found that data to be false, and that Heads Up Football showed no demonstrable effect on concussions during the study, and significantly less effect on injuries over all,” according to the story.
Concussion precautions are now in just about every sport, all the way down to Pop Warner football, Marshall said.
“Anytime there is a chance for an athlete to make contact with another – such as in soccer or lacrosse – there is an increase of possibilities for traumatic brain injuries,” Marshall said.
Educating parents and coaches, and especially the players, of the risks of concussions goes a long way in prevention.
“And it doesn’t mean you are soft and wimpy,” Marshall said.
Marshall is calling on schools to provide some middle ground in helping students who do get concussions by finding ways to allow them to remain in school but perhaps away from the loud noise of a lunch hour. Isolating students by keeping them at home while they recover, for example, can lead to depression and worsening of symptoms.
Having a student attend classes but rest in the nurse’s office during odd hours helps with recovery, he said.
While there is no way to completely avoid concussions, there are ways to minimize by wearing the proper gear, he said. A helmet must fit tightly so the head does not rattle around in it when it is struck.
NFL and college football own the weekends, so there is no reason to believe the sports will go away anytime soon, Marshall said. Each year he cheers for his favorite team – the Atlanta Falcons.