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Study: Football players experience fewer head & spine injuries in helmetless drills

Researchers at the University of New Hampshire are doing a two-year study to test the effects of helmetless tackling drills on head impacts, in an effort to decrease head and spine injury risk in football.

In the study’s first-year results, the helmetless tackling drills — featuring the New Hampshire football team — were found to be “effective in reducing head impacts by 28 percent in one season” (via Medical Daily):

Based on first-year results of a two-year study, researchers at the University of New Hampshire find helmetless-tackling drills, called the HuTTTM intervention program, is effective in reducing head impacts by 28 percent in one season. The innovative technique alters tackling behavior and is meant to reduce risk of head injury. The study put the technique to the test among 50 football players at the University of New Hampshire, a NCAA Division I team.

The athletes were divided into two groups: an intervention group and a control group. The players in the intervention group performed five-minute tackling drills without their helmets and shoulder pads twice a week during pre-season, and once a week during football season. Drills consisted of repeatedly tackling into an upright pad, tackling dummy, or a teammate holding a padded shield, while the control group performed non-contact football skills at the same time, rate, and duration.

Both groups were supervised by the UNH football coaching staff. The players wore a head-impact sensor behind their right ear to monitor the frequency, location, and acceleration of all the head impacts.

Researchers found that players in the intervention group had experienced 30 percent fewer head impacts per exposure than the control group. And at the end of one football season, the intervention group that had completed the helmetless-tackling training program had experienced 30 percent fewer head impacts per exposure than the control group.

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Erik Swartz, the professor and chair of the department of kinesiology at New Hampshire, is in charge of the study. Swartz explained how preventing head impacts “may be found in behavior modification like these drills”, and “could make it safer to play football”:

“The idea of taking off the football helmet during practice to reduce head impact may seem counterintuitive to the sport,” said Swartz. “But the findings show that preventing head impacts, which can contribute to spine and head injuries like concussions, may be found in behavior modification like these drills.”

“This behavior modification is not only about alleviating head impacts that can cause injuries now, but reducing the risk of concussive impacts that can lead to long-term complications later in life,” said Swartz. “These helmetless drills could help to make it safer to play football.”

Here’s a video showing more on the study, including New Hampshire head coach Sean McConnell talking about his support for the drills and the positive impact they’ve made on his players, both in terms of health and their tackling:

There are some very compelling findings from this study, and it will be interesting to see if more football teams start giving helmetless tackling drills a try.

Matt Clapp

About Matt Clapp

Matt is a writer and social media guy at The Comeback. He runs his own Chicago Bears and Chicago Cubs blogs (Da Bear Necessities & The Friendly Blogfines), and has written for sites such as theScore, Awful Announcing, This Given Sunday, and Next Impulse Sports. He attended Colorado State University, wishes he was Saved by the Bell's Zack Morris, and idolizes Larry David. He can be followed on Twitter at @Matt2Clapp.