Objective: Limiting contact in football practice can reduce the number of head impacts a player receives, but further research is needed to inform the modification of optimal drills that mitigate head impact exposure (HIE) while the player develops the skills needed to safely play the game. This study aimed to compare HIE in practice drills among 6 youth football teams and to evaluate the effect of a team on HIE.
Methods: On-field head impact data were collected from athletes (ages 10–13 years) playing on 6 local youth football teams (teams A–F) during all practices using the Head Impact Telemetry System. Video was recorded and analyzed to verify and assign impacts to a specific drill. Drills were identified as follows: dummy/sled tackling, half install, install, install walk through, multiplayer tackle, Oklahoma, one-on-one, open field tackling, other, passing, position skill work, scrimmage, special teams, tackling drill stations, and technique. HIE was quantified in terms of impacts per player per minute (ppm) and peak linear and rotational head acceleration. Generalized linear models were used to assess differences in head impact magnitude and frequency among drills as well as among teams within the most common drills.
Results: Among 67 athlete-seasons, a total of 14,718 impacts during contact practices were collected and evaluated in this study. Among all 6 teams, the mean linear (p < 0.0001) and rotational (p < 0.0001) acceleration varied significantly among all drills. Open field tackling had significantly (p < 0.001) higher mean linear acceleration than all other drills. Multiplayer tackle had the highest mean impact rate (0.35 ppm). Significant variations in linear acceleration and impact rate were observed among teams within specific drills. Team A had the highest mean linear acceleration in install, one-on-one, and open field tackling and the highest mean impact rate in Oklahoma and position skill work. Although team A spent the greatest proportion of their practice on minimal- or no-player versus player contact drills (27%) compared to other teams, they had the highest median (20.2g) and 95th percentile (56.4g) linear acceleration in practice.
Conclusions: Full-speed tackling and blocking drills resulted in the highest HIE. Reducing time spent on contact drills relative to minimal or no contact drills may not lower overall HIE. Instead, interventions such as reducing the speed of players engaged in contact, correcting tackling technique, and progressing to contact may reduce HIE more effectively.
Keywords: HIE = head impact exposure; HIT = Head Impact Telemetry; biomechanics; football; head acceleration; head impacts; injury; pediatrics; ppm = impacts per player per minute; trauma.