Do Youth Blocking Rules Increase Concussion Risk?

Interesting New Study

The twitter account for sent me a link to a study yesterday, and I decided to write a post about something that’s been on my mind for a while. Here’s a link to the study From there you can download the PDF or view the HTML version.

My 2 Cents

I used to play youth football as an undersized fullback. I wasn’t a great player, but I did love to block. I wonder if I’d love to block today?

Blocking is far different than it was in the 1970’s. On every play today there is some form of what back then would have been holding. I certainly wouldn’t mind being able to use my hands a little more as a blocker.  But to me the biggest change has been that skill position blockers really can’t block below the waist.

I remember spending a lot of time learning how and when to throw ‘cross-body’ blocks. The benefit for me as a 75 pound 6th grader was that I could be successful against a much bigger defensive player simply by blocking low.

This season one of our 6th grade teams was playing a game against an opponent that featured a 130 pound linebacker. (He actually may have been 140 or 150 – he had a restricted ball carrier sticker and that threshold in our league is 130 lbs. for 6th grade.)

In that game we ran a power play off tackle out of Wishbone. Our lead halfback Kyle, officially listed at a stalwart 65 pounds, found himself directly in the path of that linebacker crashing through the C gap. Kyle has played for a couple of years and he’s a pretty courageous kid in spite of his size. He turned back inside and met that linebacker head-on, facemask squarely to the numbers.

Of course, their linebacker was full-speed, and Kyle had stopped all his own momentum to meet the rush. As you might imagine, Kyle was drilled backward by the impact and flew several yards before landing in a heap. Nevertheless, his block sprung our ball-carrier for a touchdown, so it was a great block in that respect. But Kyle was carried off the field by EMT’s on a backboard – they’re appropriately cautious in our league – and rather fortunately was diagnosed with a concussion. It could have been worse.

As an option coach I would love to be able to tell my guys to block below the waist out on the perimeter. Watch Georgia Tech or Navy cut, cut, cut all day long out there – sure looks easier than what we have to teach.  But in our league we generally follow the NFHS rules, so our skill guys stay above the waist to block.

I’ve been thinking about what happened to Kyle for quite a while. I’d wondered whether or not anybody had ever studied concussions in youth football, so I was pretty excited to see that study.

Specifically of course, I was hoping to try to figure out whether little guys hitting big guys high was a more risky proposition than hitting them low. Seems obvious to me, but it probably needs a study.

We don’t have low blocking these days because years ago we became very concerned about knee injuries. I wonder – have we traded off fewer knee injuries (if we even have) for an increased number of concussions?

Interesting Points of the Study

The study that I linked to above really doesn’t address what the players were doing when they received the higher risk impact accelerations (blocking, tackling, hitting the ground, etc.) but it does raise two really interesting points. My own comments on the results are beneath in italics.

  • The study showed that head impacts increase with the level of play. 7 to 8 year-olds averaged 107 head impacts in a season. High school kids averaged 565, and college players 1000.

This makes sense to me. High school and college kids practice way more than most youth football players. Figure 8-year-olds practice 4 hours per week; high school players around 10 hours; and NCAA kids are limited to 20 hours.

  • The study showed that for youth football, higher magnitude impacts were more prevalent (76%!) in practice than in games. But in high school and college more of the heavy head impacts occurred during games.

As youth football coaches, we try to create more scenarios in practice that get very young kids used to hitting. By high school and college, those are less necessary.

When youth players don’t want to hit during games, they simply don’t. During practice youth coaches can be in players’ ears encouraging them to hit, despite any normal reluctance. By the time kids get to high school and college, they want to hit in games.

Why I Think Bringing Back Low Blocking Would Be Good

I truly wish the study had gone further, but I have some pet theories that I will share, in the hopes of someday seeing low-blocking advantages returned to smaller football players.

  1. Physics seems to support my ideas about impacts. When two players traveling at the same velocity collide directly, more energy will be transferred to the player with smaller mass. If that energy hits the smaller player’s head, I’m guessing that is a bad thing.
  2. Less massive blockers can avoid receiving that energy by blocking low. A ‘glancing’ blow, or a collision with a smaller part (i.e. a helmet glancing off a leg instead of directly impacting a torso) would be less risky for the player with less mass. It would be analogous to ‘crumple zones’ in car crash tests. The ‘give’ in the less massive parts slow down the collision and presumably dissipate the energy. Yes, the helmet itself is in a lower spot in low blocking -but inevitably helmets are involved in effective above-the-waist blocking too. It very nearly can’t be helped.
  3. Coaches with the biggest, strongest athletes won’t care to see blocking below the waist become legal. They’d probably rather let their bigger guys run over the smaller guys. But it might level the playing field a little for the rest of us.
  4. If players on defense have to defend themselves against low blocks, will it slow down their overall horizontal pursuit speed, making final impacts safer?
  5. Knee injuries are no longer the career threatening injuries that they used to be. But concussions are very dicey things. If we could trade them off 1 for 1, in both commonality and severity, should we? In other words, is a minor concussion that keeps a player out for a week better or worse than a knee sprain that keeps a player out for a week? As a dad, I’ll take the knee sprain.
  6. In youth football, we’re not great at passing.  There just aren’t a lot of great-armed 7-year-olds. Would the game improve if the odds of running the ball improved? Wouldn’t adding a viable blocking technique for smaller players improve our odds of running the ball? For that matter, wouldn’t it improve the odds of running the ball at every level?
  7. If we increase the number of running plays in a game, the clock will move faster, so there will be fewer plays overall, and naturally less risk of injury. While we would no doubt increase risks for running backs by running more, we would probably decrease risks for vulnerable quarterbacks and for receivers running patterns over the middle. A better running game means that receivers are going to be more open, and less at risk, and pass rushers will necessarily have to slow down, which will be good for quarterbacks.
  8. Everyone seems to think that tackling is lost art. If so, wouldn’t stronger rushing attack teams make us all prepare better tacklers?
  9. If we can block low out on the perimeter, we will be holding out there less often. That portion of the game will get easier for referees to call, and more fun for the blockers, because there will be fewer incidents of opposing coaches screaming for holding calls against split ends on cornerbacks.
  10. Finally, I’d be deceitful if I didn’t mention this – I think the option game would probably work a lot better in youth and high school football if we could block like the college kids!

I do think the game would become more interesting and competitive if we allowed low blocking, and possibly safer, at least for smaller players.

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