Think that, because youth football players are smaller and don't run as fast as their high school and college brethren, they don't get hit as hard?
The data suggests that youth football players as young as 6 years-old get hit almost as hard, although not nearly as often, as older players, according to a surprising 2012 study.1
Researchers from the Center for Injury Biomechanics at Virginia Polytechnic - Wake Forest University fitted the helmets of seven youth football players, ages 6 to 9, with hit sensors. They found that:
- The players, on average, received 107 head impacts over the course of a season (around 5 games and 9 practices).
- Most hits were to the side (36% of all impacts) and front of the helmet (31%), with hits to the top and rear of the helmet much less frequent (18 and 14% respectively);
- The hits (linear acceleration) ranged in g force (a measure of force as it relates to gravity) from 10 to 100, with an average of 18 g;
- Impacts to the top of the helmet recording the highest g forces;
- Of the 748 impacts recorded, a total of 38 above 40 g were collected; in contrast to high school and college players, most of the high impact hits (29) occurred during practice, not games;
- A total of 6 impacts were collected with linear accelerations above 80 g, a level of severity similar to some of the more severe impacts that college players experience; and
- No players was diagnosed with a concussion during the season.
Based on these findings, the authors recommended that steps be taken to reduce head impact exposure in youth football, particularly at higher severities, by restructuring practices to minimize full contact drills and focus instead on practicing football fundamentals, with an emphasis on the teaching of proper tackling technique.
In the summer of 2012, Pop Warner responded swiftly to the findings of the Virginia Tech researchers by adopting new practice rules designed to reduce the number and magnitude of helmet-to-helmet impacts.
Youth-specific football helmets needed
In addtion, the study calls for changes in the design of youth football helmets. The authors noted that, despite the players' smaller size and undeveloped neck muscles, helmets for youth players are remarkably similar in size, mass and design materials to adult football helmets.
Combined with data showing that a substantially higher percentage of hits to the helmets of youth players are to the side of the helmet - which the researchers attributed to a differences in the styles of play between the different age groups, as well as the fact that youth players have a tendancy to fall to the side when tackled - these factors may result in a youth player being more susceptible to impacting his head on the ground while being tackled than a high school or college player, knowledge that could aid in the design of better youth-specific football helmets.Beginning in the fall of 2012, the Virginia Tech and Wake Forest researchers began collecting more data on impacts among the youth football population by putting hit sensors in the helmets of over 300 youth football players from ages 6 to 18 in a program they are dubbing KIDS (Kinematics of Impact Data Set). As more is learned about youth head impact exposure, the researchers say, they can begin to develop methods to evaluate youth-specific helmet designs (as is now being done in the Virginia Tech Helmet Ratings,TM now in its third year; ratings of youth football helmets are promised in 2014.
1. Daniel R, Rowson S, Duma S. Head Impact Exposure in Youth Football. Ann. Biomed. Eng 2012;40(4):976-981.
Revised May 17, 2013