First-Of-Its-Kind Study Finds Youth Football Players Have Low Concussion Risk

By Chuck Finder

Rick Young watched his 9-year-old son endure a helmet-to-helmet collision and a concussion in a youth football game three years ago. It motivated the father to become active in the concussion cause for their Peters Township Junior Football Association, helping to inaugurate organized baseline testing and procedures to try to reduce mild traumatic brain injuries in their children.

“There has been a pretty significant change to the approach of youth football, teaching kids how to play and the right way to play associated with concussion injuries,” Young said. “It’s had a big impact. And I’m personally glad to see that.”

Young, whose son Nicky, now 13, recovered completely but chose to concentrate on hockey, bore witness to such progress while participating with his Peters Township program in a landmark, NFL-funded study in which researchers at the University of Pittsburgh/UPMC found that youth-football players were both at low risk for concussions in practice and at a similar risk as previously reported for high-school and college players.

In the study, encompassing 468 players ages 8-12 on 18 teams from suburban Pittsburgh and central Pennsylvania, the researchers found that practices were relatively concussion-free (0.24 incidences per 1,000 exposures). However, these youth players were 26 times more likely to suffer a concussion in a game (6.16/1,000 exposures) than in practice. These data suggest that contact practices can be the proper place to teach proper tackling techniques (using the shoulder rather than helmet), which are being taught in Peters Township, around USA Football and through other youth-football organizations across the United States where some 3 million children play the game.

“This finding suggests that reducing contact-practice exposures in youth football – which some leagues have done recently - will likely have little effect on reducing concussion risk, as few concussions actually occur in practice,” said Anthony Kontos, Ph.D., the study’s principal investigator and the assistant research director for the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program. “Instead of reducing contact-practice time, youth-football leagues should focus on awareness and education about concussion. We believe that practice is when tackling technique can be taught and reinforced in a much safer environment than in games.”

“A lot of organizations have adjusted their rules and regulations, their policies and procedures, to make sure their coaches understand these injuries,” said Young, a podiatrist. “In our organization, coaches have to take a course or they can’t be a coach.”

Darrell Gudenburr’s 11-year-old son, Drew, sustained a concussion from a helmet-to-helmet hit in a Peters Township game nearly eight months ago, and the boy hasn’t returned to sports since.

“That’s so important,” said Darrell Gudenburr, who not only coaches in the Peters Township association but serves as a vice president with the governing Greater 19 Youth Football League. “To make sure the kids are tackling with their heads up, not leading with their helmet, that’s something we’ve focused on for a long time. Everybody has to kind of get trained, to make sure we’re teaching the proper fundamentals of tackling. And that in itself can be a challenge.”