Does "heads up tackle" reduce Little League concussions?

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Eric Endicott has coached youth sports for 28 years. With his own son now on the gridiron, safety is as important as ever. It's a reason his South County Football League was one of the first in the Lone Star Football Alliance to introduce "Heads Up Tackle," a program partnered with USA football.

"There's a certain way that they position their bodies to make impact without the head being the first thing that makes contacts," explained Endicott, who currently serves as his league's Board President. He says it's resulted in fewer injuries in the years they've used the technique.

Football has a concussion problem; from the Hollywood film Concussion starring Will Smith to NFL players openly criticizing the game's dangers. Despite this, Endicott says he's seen no drop in the number of youth playing the sport. Instead, he's seen a rise in leagues, but warns not all use Heads Up Tackle coaching.

As to whether the USA football-endorsed technique actually reduce concussions, Dr. Alysia Robichau of UT Physicians and Memorial Hermann says, in theory, yes because "there's less head contact. That should be less head injuries."

Dr. Robichau points out the Heads Up strategy introduces new risks. "You may have more neck injuries, you may have more hyperextension injury depending on which way they're getting shoved, you may have more rotator cuff [injuries] and for youth sports their shoulders aren't completely developed."

A 2016 study conducted by Quintiles Injury Surveillance and Analytics showed only 1 in 3 NFL concussions occurred from helmet contact in 2015. While Heads Up may help, it doesn't eliminate the dangers of the game.

"Every sport has the potential to be safe and dangerous," said Dr. Robichau, who's treated thousands of concussions caused by everything from cheerleading to golf carts. She emphasized the importance of informed coaches who are trained in safe tackling and player practice, and having medical expertise on hand during games to assess whether a player needs to sit out.

"Coach should never make that call," agrees Endicott. "Coaches sometimes have ulterior motives about kids playing so it's really up to a medical doctor and a parent."

Dr. Robichau recommends parents who have children playing football follow these tips:

  1. Make sure the league has a medical professional on the sidelines during games to asses injuries, rather than a coach or parent.
  2. Ask your child's coach about their strategy regarding tackles and concussions, ensuring a child is forced to sit out if they show symptoms such as dizziness or vision trouble.
  3. Ask your child's doctor if they handle concussions. If they do not, ask for the name of a doctor who does, so you can reach them quickly if your child sustains an injury.

Coach Endicott says his league partners with Memorial Hermann hospital to provide a medical professional at every game. If a player shows signs of concussion, a doctors note is required before they can step back on the field.

The Lone Star Youth Football Alliance (LSYFA) is a service youth football organization whose purpose is to provide organized scheduling for member leagues and provide common age groups, weight limits, and playing rules.