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Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Hall of Famer Mark Jonas knows what it takes to turn kids into champions on the football field. He just took over the Southern Door High School team in rural Wisconsin and switched training this summer to try to keep his players healthy.

Last year players tackled and blocked hard in training, and some suffered head injuries, he said.

This year, Jonas has them do non-contact form tackling drills that teach tackling technique. When they block, they push against a sled rather than against each other.

The changes seem to be working: no children have shown any signs of head injuries in training or games.

“I hate to be cliché, but I always think, ‘what would you do if that was your kid?’ You want your child to be as healthy as possible and as safe as possible and to enjoy the experience,” Jonas said. “You don’t enjoy the experience when you have a severe concussion. Our practices are for learning, not for fighting each other.

Practices in which children don’t hit each other are exactly what the authors of a new study say would be needed to reduce the number of chronic brain problems in high school football players without completely getting rid of the sport.

Football is the most popular sport with high school students; over 1.46 million games. Over the years, participation declined slightly as more parents and children became concerned about head injuries and the long-term effects of crashing into each other or the ground.

All 50 states have adopted some kind of concussion rules for schools, and districts have rules in place to limit head injuries and make football safer. But it’s not just concussions that are a problem. There is growing evidence showing that chronic sports-related head impact exposure, and not just in football, can cause microstructural damage and impair or impair certain brain activities.

The authors of the study, published Thursday in the journal Pediatrics, suggest that a change in the practice of high school students could have an even greater effect than previous approaches intended to limit head injuries.

The researchers, from Indiana University, studied the games and practices of three Midwestern high school teams during the 2021 season. They observed practices and studied team videos. Additionally, players wore mouth guards with sensors. They also interviewed players and parents.

They found that there were 7,312 head impacts among the 74 players: approximately 66.5 hits per student. The linemen took the brunt of the head shots. There were the fewest hits to the head when the children practiced “air” training, that is, non-contact exercises.

With 5,144 minutes of “air” exercises, there were approximately 310 total head impacts. By comparison, in 6,901 minutes of “noise” drills, in which players train at high speeds and limit contact above the waist, there were 3,360 head impacts.

“Limiting shock-prone training exercises may reduce overall head shock exposure,” the study states. “These data are important because athletes who are diagnosed with a concussion have been exposed to frequent head impacts prior to the concussive event. This clearly shows that minimizing exposure to head impacts, particularly prior to matches, can be achieved by incorporating less shock-prone drills.

Dr. Elizabeth Matzkin, a Brigham Mass Orthopedic General Surgeon and Boston sports medicine specialist, works with several high school and Division 1 football teams. She thinks the suggestion of a limited-contact practice is a good one.

“Unfortunately, concussions are a problem, and anything we can do to limit, I think, not just concussions – but the part of this article just deals with impact to the head, you know, children who fall, banging their heads on the ground. It all adds up,” said Matzkin, who did not work on the study. “How can we modify practices to limit impacts to the head of our players? high school football, it’s a very good starting point.”

Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher, medical director of the Henry Ford Kutcher Clinic for Concussion and Sports Neurology, said this study adds significant and specific evidence to support previous understanding of sports.

“While it’s not a new idea or a new concept, it certainly provides data that allows us to have stronger conventions about how we think about playing football,” said Kutcher, who has no not participated in the new research.

The study authors suggest that data can only be effective if coaches adopt a policy that emphasizes less time spent on “noise” and “live” drills and more time on live drills. low exposure. Whether coaches would be willing to change practice is something they would like to explore further.

Jon Millett, athletic director at Cony High School in Augusta, Maine, said his football coach runs practices for the team that are a mix of non-contact and contact.

“You have to practice what you are going to do. There is no way around it,” he said.

In training, they use Guardian Caps, lightweight, squishy devices that fit over the top of helmets and are designed to reduce impact force to the head. He says he is not aware of any concussions on the football team this year.

“Even though it saved a child from a [brain] injury on the road, it’s worth it,” Millett said. “Obviously the goal is to keep everyone healthy and functional so they can be part of the team.”

Jonas Wisconsin players also use Guardian Caps, even without full contact in practice. He said he grew up with a very different kind of training, but “when you hit and hit every day” he thinks it puts kids at unnecessary risk of injury.

Working on the placement of the hands and shoulders, doing exercises, that’s enough. He said his kids know what they’re doing on Friday nights.

“This is one of the most impactful groups I’ve had in 26 years as a head coach,” Jonas said.

And it pays off. Jonas’ team is 8-0 in his first year coaching at the school. They are ranked fifth in the state.

“We just can’t afford to have our children hurt,” he said. “Keeping full contact out of training has worked really well for us. At the end of the day, muscle memory is in the tackle for what you bring to this form, and this group of kids brings a lot, so we’re really lucky.

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