Developing fundamentals and learning proper mechanics dramatically reduces the chances for injury, according to a pair of medical experts who work with NFL and college football players.
These are critical ingredients for a better, safer sports experience and too often overlooked in current news stories that discuss football injuries, including concussion, said Dr. Patrick Kersey of Indianapolis-based St. Vincent Sports Medicine and Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz of the University of North Carolina Concussion Research Center.
Using proper coaching techniques to create muscle memory will help athletes get themselves in the correct position at points of impact to both receive and deliver force correctly, Kersey said.
“When a car is finely tuned at a high functional level, it performs that way,” Kersey said. “The body is the same way. And the sooner a body learns something – whether it is football or any academic or athletic exertion – the better.”
Kersey serves as USA Football’s medical director and is a consultant for the Indianapolis Colts. He said football players who learn proper fundamentals at an early age take the skills with them as they progress to higher levels.
Guskiewicz said weight and strength discrepancies are not as wide during these developmental periods as they are in high school and college, so it is a better time to learn the techniques.
And younger athletes are more likely to be open to coaching, thus willing to absorb more of the information.
“I’m not a fan of eliminating contact sports for kids under 14,” Guskiewicz said. “We need to focus on behavior modification, skill development and how to block and tackle properly at this age.”
Guskiewicz is the University of North Carolina exercise and sport science department chair and also serves on the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee.
At the university’s concussion research center, his group is studying head collisions by putting accelerometers inside each football player’s helmet and linking it to video footage of games and practices.
By studying the results, researchers, coaches and players can see how many times the player makes impact with his helmet and how this can sometimes be avoided.
“We can tell them, ‘Notice that you are not moving your arms forward like you should (at impact),’ ” Guskiewicz said. “When you lead with your arms, your chest goes back and head goes back, away from the impact.”
USA Football’s Heads Up Tackling teaches the same technique.
As a defender nears the point of contact, he takes a downhill power step toward the ball-carrier, keeping his head and eyes up. With a staggered stance – one foot slightly in front of the other – a deep knee bend while maintaining the 45-degree back angle coils the proper muscles for impact.
By throwing “double uppercuts” with his arms tight into the ball-carrier’s body, the tackler releases his hips and grabs at the top of the jersey numbers to drive through the runner.
This motion exerts maximum force while moving the tackler’s head up and away from contact, creating a safer impact zone for both sides as players collide and force is transferred.
“Clearly, if athletes lead with their heads as the first point of contact, it forces the brain into a vulnerable position in which it will rebound while accelerating and decelerating,” Guskiewicz said. “This can lead to concussion. If we can teach the motor patterns correctly early on, players will retain this motor skill to later in life when they are competing against bigger, stronger and faster players when the speed and velocity of the game increases.”
The role of equipment is important when it comes to safety, Kersey said, but secondary to biomechanics.
Helmets, shoulder pads and other safety equipment are designed to dissipate force, which is why proper fitting is important, Kersey said. Ill-fitting equipment does not spread the force equally over a larger body mass.
“The technological evolution in manufacturing is invaluable, and a lot of concussion awareness is stimulating that,” Kersey said. “But concussions cannot be eradicated because of equipment alone.”
Companies that claim to lessen the chance or even eliminate concussion with their product do a disservice to players, Kersey said.
“That sends a skewed message to the player, who thinks because he cannot get a concussion, he will throw himself into harm’s way,” Kersey said. “Then if a player becomes symptomatic, he thinks it can’t be a concussion because I was wearing such and such equipment.”
This is why the message must be building skills and fundamentals, not buying the latest gear to keep a player safe, Guskiewicz said.
“There is too much emphasis on finding a concussion-proof helmet and not enough on the mechanics of blocking and tackling,” he said. “Manufacturers are doing a great job of being at the forefront of technology, but common sense and a basic understanding of the biomechanics of concussion show helmets cannot prevent concussion. They do a great job preventing skull fractures, but no helmet can completely stop the motion of the brain.”