By Marty Gordon
Researchers at Virginia Tech are leading a $3.3 million, five-year study that includes analyzing the head impacts of several area youth football teams. This is the third-year of research, which has placed sensors inside the helmets of teams from Blacksburg and Auburn.
According to a study by the “American Journal of Sports Medicine,” football players suffer the most brain injuries of any sport. The recent numbers have been staggering. The result of which has been a lot of media attention on this issue and how it impacts players later in life.
Stefan Duman, the head of Virginia Tech’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics, has become the national expert in this area of study. Duman calls this the largest coordinated youth study with the most advanced combination of instrumentation, clinical and neuropsychological testing possibly ever done.
“Collecting this data allows to make solid decisions on our helmet rating program (STAR Ratings to make the choice of helmets safer) and offers ways to improve those helmets,” he said recently.
A research assistant and a trainer then transmit data to a wireless unit that is monitored on the sideline.
“For every impact, it transmits data back to the sidelines. So, we’re able to see the dangerous impacts,” Duman said.
Up until this point, researchers knew very little about youth football and its impact on the head. Now, Duman said, they can better understand youth football and how to make it safer.
Duman said the key is to make equipment safer and that is what this research is doing.
Through this process, researchers have followed the same group of players to see how they have been affected over the time-period.
The Blacksburg Middle School team is one of those benefiting from this research study with specially equipped helmets with sensors that track impacts by players during practices and games.
Most of the BMS players have been a part of the study since they started playing youth football. Coach Kevin Miller said by having players monitored in real time on a daily basis, his staff could keep track of all hits and take immediate action if a player receives an abnormal blow to the head.
“Also, it gives coaching staff more confidence that our players are being protected in the event that we don’t see an above average hit,” he said. “We know in real time when a player needs to be pulled and evaluated, and with the baseline testing we no longer have to guess whether a player has received and injury.”
Each player on the middle school team has new helmets at zero cost to the school, a major benefit to Miller’s school—an estimated $2,000 per helmet.
Over the past few years, Duman and his staff have discovered youth players took more high impacts during practice and not games.
Again, pointing to the fact that youth football needed a different type of helmet than college and the pros for adults. The latter part of the study showed it was the opposite for the older players.
The study has also funded a medical trainer to be at both the practices and games, thus giving Miller even more confidence that his players are being checked by a true professional instead of just himself or his staff, taking any guesswork out of their hands.
“It’s immeasurable. We as coaches are teaching the game (i.e.- tackling) different now days but having the trainer and helmet sensors has made our jobs much easier and I know that my boys are as safe as they can possibly be. We are very fortunate to be in the situation that we are. I am very grateful to VT and especially Dr. Duma,” Miller said.
A total of six teams in three states have been studied. Last year, there was no concussion reported with any of the middle school teams.
Already the local research has led to the elimination of many high impact drills in youth practices across the country, significantly reducing the risk of head injuries, according to Duman.
The research convinced Pop Warner football to change its rules regarding practice and tackling techniques.
USA Football has also set new standards that call for 30 minutes or less of full contact drills in practice. Those guidelines took effect in 2015.
In addition to the youth teams, ongoing research is also underway with 20 collegiate teams including Virginia Tech.
“What we have learned from the collegiate level has also been important in making helmets safer,” Duman said.
Again, the study continues on both levels for another two years, and Virginia Tech researchers hope their findings will make the game safer for all ages.
(Editor’s note: This is another part of the ongoing series of head impacts in the game of football.)