It’s not unusual for athletes to see their seasons ended in a matter of seconds due to injury. Far worse are those potential college and professional football dreams crushed by doctors forced to send players into early retirement. No amount of passion can overcome a career-ending injury.
Researchers, startups, and universities across America are working to prevent these devastating blows from ruining an athlete's career. Modern technology is changing how students play football and reducing the number of injuries they sustain. Here are a few ways technology is making football safer.
Technology and Research Reduce Injuries in Practice
How teams practice has a significant impact on injury potential. Overworking players can lead to stress injuries, while unsafe practice conditions can put students at risk. Modern technology is changing how athletes practice to create better and safer results.
Some schools, like St. Thomas Aquinas in Ft. Lauderdale are investing in Mobile Virtual Players, or robotic dummies that “run” across the field and simulate offensive players. These robots are six feet tall and weigh 185 pounds. They can run across the field at 20 miles per hour and complete a 40-yard dash in five seconds.
While dynamic robots create a more realistic playing simulation than static dummies, they also contribute to the safety of the players. Defensive linemen can knock them over all they want (if they can catch them) and coaches don’t have to worry about the robots getting injured.
These robots could have a massive impact on sports injuries in football. According to the organization STOP Sports Injuries, 62 percent of injuries in organized sports occur during practice. Furthermore, almost half of all sports injuries occur because of overuse. These dummies mean other players aren’t on the field (giving them time to rest) and the practice environment is safer.
Practice With Padding Reducing Injuries
Another way to reduce injuries during the game through better practice techniques may be helmetless training.
Researchers at the College of Health and Human Services at the University of New Hampshire are testing players by having them practice without helmets or any type of padding. Without the protection that comes from padding, players have to think about staying safe and play in ways that won’t result in injury. This is particularly important in preventing concussions.
Helmets actually create a false sense of security, causing many athletes to “lead with the head” when they play, often resulting in injuries. “You can sustain a lighter magnitude impact for multiple times, and it doesn't hurt,” study author Erik Swartz says. “So you're less careful with your head when it's protected."
Reducing Concussions With Better Helmets
Helmetless practice isn’t the only way to reduce head injuries and concussions. A whole industry has been created around understanding the nature of concussions and preventing them with better helmet technology.
Today’s helmets were meant to deal with skull fractures and brain hemorrhages. They were never meant to prevent concussions. This is why researchers are looking to completely change the approach to football headgear to meet modern challenges.
The Zero1 helmet was developed over two years by VICIS and the University of Washington with just under $10 million in funding.
“Unlike traditional helmets, the Zero1 has a soft outer shell that deforms on impact and a column-like inner structure intended to absorb impact and disperse its force,” Abigail Tracy writes at Forbes. “There is also an additional rigid layer inside the helmet.”
This is similar to a car bumper which is built to compress on impact, absorbing the force so the driver doesn’t.
Not all researchers are working to recreate the entire helmet. Professor Vijay Gupta at the Henry Samueli School of Engineering at UCLA is developing a helmet liner that reduces g-forces and therefore the impact on the brain.
“Gupta's ultra-thin, strong polymer helmet liner, material he first created to bind steel and composites on Navy ships, may provide a way to reduce the internal shock wave that causes these brain injuries,” Jill Stewart writes at LA Weekly. “The liner is so thin that it's unnoticeable, which is extremely exciting to him because he believes sometimes-fussy players will not reject it as a new piece of bothersome equipment.”
Currently Gupta is working with helmet manufacturers to add the liner. Early tests show this liner could slash concussion rates by 25 percent.
Testing Helps Identify Concussion Symptoms in Players
Along with prevention, researchers are also working to better test players for potential concussion injuries right on the sidelines. Many teams, including the American Women’s National Soccer Team, have been criticized for sending players back into the game immediately after a hit to the head.
Many organizations are working to develop rapid fire testing to determine — on the spot — if a player can get back on the field or not. These tests benefit players who need to know if they’re at risk along with coaches who want their players in the game.
Researchers at the University of Miami are developing “concussion goggles,” that can quickly check players for symptoms of a brain injury in a matter of minutes.
“The goggles feature embedded eye tracking and stimulus display and can detect brain injury by measuring eye movement and speed and symmetry of pupil dilation,” Al Diaz writes at the Miami Herald. “This data helps determine at the site of injury whether an athlete is clear to return to the game or whether further medical attention is needed.”
The goggles have been developed with the help of a $50,000 grant by the NFL, Under Armour, and GE. The project also has support from the US Department of Defense.
Kevin Hrusovksy, CEO of Quanterix, is working with his team to develop a handheld blood analyzer that could diagnose a concussion in as little as 20 minutes. However, this technology is still in the developmental phase and requires extensive testing with patients of all athletic levels before researchers can say for certain that the diagnosis is accurate. Currently the test is run in a lab on a non-portable machine and takes 45 minutes.
Some of this technology is already available for high school players. The Huntington North Vikings in Northeast Indiana invested $5,400 to install an InSite Impact Response System into their helmets. With this system, five sensors are placed underneath helmets in five different places to measure an impact’s severity and frequency.
“A hit is signaled as severe based on a threshold that takes into account a player’s age and position,” wane.com reports. “The device will tell the trainer who was hit and at what time. The trainer will then take the player off the field and evaluate the injury.”
The sensors also come with a software suite that allows coaches to monitor who is hit over time. The Vikings are the first high school in the area to invest in this technology.
Not All Concussion Testing Tools Are Expensive
In an article for the Huffington Post, Ken Reed implores coaches to implement better sideline concussion testing protocols whether or not they have the latest technology to do it.
One option he presents is the King-Devick Test that is endorsed by the Mayo Clinic. These tests take less than two minutes to administer, cost around ten dollars per year for athletes, and can be administered by coaches or parents instead of medical professionals.
“The test can identify athletes that not only have suffered a full-blown concussion but subconcussive brain trauma as well,” Reed writes.
With these tests, coaches will soon be able to send their players back on the field knowing they’re okay, and players will know they’re not at risk of permanent brain damage.
Coaches Can’t Rely on Players to Self-Report
A recent study by Jessica Wallace at Youngstown State University in Ohio found that male athletes avoid reporting concussions because they don’t want to look weak or risk missing playing time because of a head injury.
“Wallace’s team surveyed close to 300 athletes from three Michigan high schools with football, wrestling, volleyball, basketball, or soccer programs,” the Neurologic Rehabilitation Institute at Brookhaven reports. “Boys were between four and 11 times less likely to report a concussion compared to girls.”
Coaches can’t trust players to report whether they feel good or bad. Eager players will want to get back onto the field and could sustain a permanent injury. By investing in testing technology, both parties will clearly understand the scope of the damage.
Technology Also Improves Non-Head-Related Injuries
While the NFL is focused on the long-term effects of concussions, players and coaches know that the rest of the body is just as vulnerable to season-ending injuries. These worries extend from the middle-school sports level all the way through the pros.
Peter Barzilai and Erik Brady at USA Today surveyed 293 players on 20 NFL teams and asked which body part they were most concerned about injuring during a game. Almost half (46 percent) said they were worried about their knees or legs, 24 percent worried about their head or neck, while 26 percent said none.
One of the top reasons players are so concerned about leg injuries is the recovery time. A knee injury can bench a player for the season. On the professional level, this affects his paycheck. On the student level, this affects his recruiting visibility.
Matthew Jussim broke down the five most devastating sports injuries for Men’s Fitness. Among them include:
Torn ACL with a recovery time of eight to 12 months.
Torn UCL, requiring a Tommy John surgery, with a recovery time of 12 to 18 months.
Broken leg with a recovery time of at least a year.
While it’s not uncommon for a player to break his leg or a pitcher to seek Tommy John surgery only to return just as strong next season, these breaks can end careers in older players and borderline players who don’t have extensive contracts (or scholarship offers in the case of students).
This has led some NFL health and safety experts to focus on ways to prevent leg and knee injuries on the field. The surveyed players’ fears aren’t unwarranted, as 60 percent of football injuries occur on the lower extremities.
Adam Stites at SB Nation reports that the NFL is working to reduce this with better-fitting cleats. In 2017, players will have their feet scanned by specially-designed lasers meant to find the best size and shoe type for a player and position. Not only will this make cleats safer, it will also optimize running performance for players.
Good Coaching Improves Modern Technology
While technology can reduce head and leg injuries on the football field, it’s up to coaches to create a safe athletic environment.
Injuries are prevalent in all sports across all levels of play, but they’re significantly higher in football. Dr. Margot Putukian at Princeton University found that there was an average of five injuries per 1,000 high school athletes during the 2015-2016 season. The top two sports for injuries came from football with 13 injuries per 1,000 players and girls’ soccer with six injuries per 1,000 players, reports Healthline.
By investing in modern technology and staying up-to-date on the latest safe practice techniques, coaches can create a safer environment for players and reduce these injury statistics.