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Safety First – Contact In Practice – Is It Worth It?

by: Frank Therber
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Football is changing. With the game under great scrutiny from a player safety perspective, those in and out of football are questioning long-held practices that may put players at greater risk of injury.

One of those is full contact in practice. The old belief that contact drills and hitting are necessary in practice is giving way to a more restrained approach that limits or even eliminates contact in the interest of player safety.

Rockhurst High School (MO) Head Coach Tony Severino knows there is more emphasis on player safety than ever before. “I love the awareness factor of it,” he said. “We haven’t changed what we’ve done. We haven’t done a live tackling drill in 36 years.” For Severino, player safety in general is a concern. The 43-year coaching veteran also sees a performance-related issue to contact during practice. “We don’t want our kids getting beat up in live scrimmages. And, you practice more than you play. If you get 30 tackles a week, you might get three or four in a game.”

The recent emphasis on safety was enough to make Pop Warner limit the amount of contact allowed during teams’ practice. The organization also conducted a study in hopes of proving the correlation between the amount of contact and number of concussions sustained by players. The study included players in its own league and third party middle school and high school teams.

At the conclusion of the study, Pop Warner noted quantitative results hinting that reduced contact might be a piece to the puzzle in minimizing concussions and their subsequent effects later in life. The Pop Warner teams experienced a similar amount of injuries as their counterparts, but sustained 9.2% fewer concussions.

Executive Director Jon Butler attributed minimal contact in practice and a focus on technique, rather than impact, as a probable factor in the lower number of head injuries. “I do think those techniques should be properly learned at a young age so they can become instinctive,” Butler said. “What you’re really looking for is ‘do you know your assignments’? I spoke with a friend that coaches high school in New Jersey, and he said that after two weeks of preseason they don’t engage in contact because they don’t want to get their kids beaten up for games.”

Like Pop Warner, USA Football has also taken steps to regulate the amount of full-speed contact in the youth game. The organization “packaged,” as Director of Football Development Nick Inzerello labeled it, a group of techniques influencing teaching and safety alike.

USA Football’s “Levels of Contact” acts as a resource to designate appropriate paces of play for various practice scenarios. The five levels are Air (no contact), Bags (use of tackling dummies and sacks), Control (light contact), Thud (half-speed) and Live (full-speed).

“If you look at youth football, a big part of a coach’s responsibility is to build players’ confidence,” Inzerello said. “The goal is to develop confidence and enhance motor skill development while limiting helmet-to-helmet contact.”

Inzerello also emphasized the importance of a practice plan to go hand-in-hand with the levels of contact. “The response has been very positive,” Inzerello said. “Football is taught between individual and group periods. There is a rhyme and a reason to a practice plan. We only recommend that a coach use game-like speed during team periods. We believe levels of contact will help them do that.”

John Gagliardi, the retired Saint John’s University coach and college football’s all-time wins leader, recalled his own experience. “I remember when a guy would get knocked out,” he said. “They’d throw some smelling salts under his nose and if he could answer what day it was, they would throw him right back in there.”

Gagliardi became college football’s all-time wins leader not only without contact tiers, but no contact at all. “I’ve always felt that too many players in football pay a price for head-related injuries,” Gagliardi said.

His 1956 team paid a price when Jim Lehman, the father of touring golf professional Tom Lehman, went down with an injury during a live scrimmage. The team struggled the rest of the season, and Gagliardi refused to go live in practice for the remaining 56 years of his career. The emphasis went so far as to even banning the use of sleds during the week. “I know people thought we were crazy and thought we wouldn’t win many games, but I think we showed them it could be done.”

Safety awareness and the track record of coaches such as Gagliardi and Severino should be enough to make some coaches rethink their strategies related to full contact during practices. At the same time, many believe there are ways to have practice reflect live, game situations while still prioritizing safety.

Do the risks outweigh the rewards of hitting during the week? The Ivy League met in the middle, allowing a maximum of two contact practices per week. League officials have admitted considering reducing that number to one.

Will contact in practice ultimately be eliminated from the game? It is likely that, as more and more coaches become safety-aware and reduce contact without seeing negative results, the idea of full-speed contact drills will soon be a thing of the past.


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