Sports Medicine Research: In the Lab & In the Field: Helmetless Tackling Promotes Better Tackling Behaviors Resulting in Less Head Impacts (Sports Med Res)
Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Helmetless Tackling Promotes Better Tackling Behaviors Resulting in Less Head Impacts

Early Results of a Helmetless-Tackling Intervention to Decrease Head Impacts in Football Players

Swartz EE, Broglio SP, Cook SB, Cantu RC, Ferrara MS, Guskiewicz KM, Myers JL. J Athl Train. 2015; ahead of print

Take Home Message: Helmetless-tackling training reduces head impacts in collegiate football players.

High school and college football athletes can experience more than 1000 head impacts in a single season. Multiple head impacts have been associated with brain injuries such as concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The researchers performed a randomized clinical trial to determine if a helmetless-tackling behavioral intervention could reduce the number of head impacts among athletes in a National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I football program. The authors enrolled 50 football players with 2 years of eligibility in this 2-year (2014-2015 seasons) prospective randomized controlled study. The athletes were stratified by position (offense versus defense) and randomized into intervention (25 athletes) or control (25 athletes) groups. Prior to the first preseason practice the athletes received an xPatch head impact sensor and were fitted with a new Riddell Revolution Speed helmet. Before each football practice/game the xPatch was affixed to the participant’s skin over the mastoid process. The authors recorded participation in a game or practice as 1 athlete-exposure. The athletes within the intervention group participated in a 5-minute drill without helmets or shoulder pads. These drills involved multiple supervised repetition of executing proper tackling into an upright pad or teammate holding a padded shied at 50-75% effort. The athletes within the control group were separated from the intervention group and performed a placebo drill, which consisted of noncontact football skills. These drills occurred twice a week during the preseason (3-weeks) and once a week within the competitive season (16 weeks). Frequency, location, peak linear acceleration, rotational acceleration, and duration of all head impacts at or above the threshold of 10g were recorded by the xPatch. The authors presented in this paper the results from the first season. The authors found that the helmetless-tackling intervention resulted in athletes having 28% and 30% less head impacts and impacts per athlete-exposure by the end of the season; respectively (intervention ~14 impacts per athletic-exposure, control group ~10 impacts/exposure).

This is a significant study because it demonstrates that within 1 season a new helmetless-training technique can decrease head impacts by 28%. This suggests that this novel 5-minute helmetless-tackling intervention can improve tackling behavior and reduce head impacts during play. The authors suggest that helmetless tackling may eliminate the false sense of security that a player may feel while wearing a helmet. Practicing tackling techniques without the helmet and pads may be counterintuitive; however, medical professionals should weigh the risks to the benefits. Contact sports and repeated head impacts have been associated with concussions and chronictraumatic encephalopathy; therefore, behavior modification with 5 minutes of helmetless-tackling drills may be helpful to the athletes’ health long-term.  Future research is necessary to determine if helmetless-training programs are effective for different performance levels (Divisions II & III, high school, youth). Furthermore, it needs to be determined if these benefits will persist and how often these skills need to be practiced to avoid a return to poor tackling behaviors. In the meantime, football teams should consider this brief helmetless-tackling training program as a possible option for their team.

Questions for Discussion: Are you a proponent of the 5 minutes helmetless-tackling drills? Do you think helmetless tackling will result in other benefits such as decreases in other injuries?

Written by: Jane McDevitt, PhD
Reviewed by: Jeff Driban

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Swartz EE, Broglio SP, Cook SB, Cantu RC, Ferrara MS, Guskiewicz KM, & Myers JL (2015). Early Results of a Helmetless-Tackling Intervention to Decrease Head Impacts in Football Players. Journal of Athletic Training PMID: 26651278

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