Football teams across the country are starting to practice now for the fall season. While players are dreaming bringing home the championship trophy, coaches worry about their best players getting injured. Not only can a few bad injuries ruin a season, they can also limit a student’s college and career prospects.
Fortunately, football safety starts with the right culture. Follow these 25 tips from industry trainers, coaches, and professional organizations to have a safe and successful season.
1. Follow the Latest USA Football Regulations
USA Football is the official governing body of amateur football. In early 2017, the organization started testing new regulations to increase the safety of the sport. These changes include:
Only seven players will be allowed on the field for each team.
There will be no special teams.
There will be mandated position rotations.
Two coaches are allowed on the field to organize players.
Players of equal size must line up against each other.
The field length with width will be 40 yards by 35 yards.
This is part of a pilot program that might get rolled out across the country. By following USA Football’s best practices, coaches can increase player safety while adapting early to future rules.
2. Play With Certified Coaches and Organizations
Dr. Gary Tart at Pediatrics Northwest encourages parents to look for coaches who have been certified by USA Football or the Youth Football Coaches Association. These professionals prove that they understand the safety fundamentals of football and follow organizational best practices for safe play.
At least one coach on the team should have certification and pass the information on to the other staff members.
3. Designate a Player Safety Coach
USA Football also recommends designating a player safety coach (PSC) to encourage safe practices from both the coaches and the players. The Oak Hills Youth Athletics department has established a PSC and explains the role this coach will have on the team: Along with leading safety clinics and raising concussion awareness, the PSC monitors hydration and educates players on how to wear properly fitting equipment. This position prevents injuries and keeps coaches accountable for making safe choices.
4. Educate Athletes on Concussion Symptoms
Dr. Rosemarie Scolaro Moser, author of Ahead of the Game: The Parents’ Guide to Youth Sports Concussion, encourages parents and coaches to talk to their athletes about concussions and how to identify symptoms. This increases the chances that an athlete reports a concussion instead of trying to hide it or brush it off as a bad hit.
5. Set Heat Index Guidelines for Your Area
While many players and coaches consider outside temperatures when determining if it’s too hot to play, health experts actually recommend tracking the heat index, or the combination of heat and humidity, to determine if it’s too hot outside to play.
Brooke de Lench created a chart for monitoring the heat index and maintaining safety. Any outdoor sports should be stopped when the heat index exceeds 104 degrees in order to prevent heat stroke or fainting.
6. Examine the Playing Field Before Players Start
The Brain Injury Alliance of New Jersey encourages coaches to examine the playing field for uneven surfaces and holes before starting a game. This is a technique that some NFL quarterbacks — like Jameis Winston of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — use to make sure they don’t trip or throw the ball into a bad area where their receivers could potentially trip.
Not only can identifying and repairing uneven surfaces prevent head injuries, it can also protect the legs and ankles of players who might trip over an unseen rut.
7. Emphasize the Value of Good Fundamentals
Knowing how to run a few plays is good, but if a player struggles to block, tackle, or catch the ball, then they will struggle any time they enter a new setting. By focusing on the fundamentals, you’re able to teach your players to run any play well — no matter who created it.
“We cannot give our kids a 100 page playbook and expect them to memorize it in a 6 week season,” Jobe Lewis writes at ThoughtCo. “Set them up for success in their future football career by laying a solid foundation now.”
Your players will thank you when they enter college with a solid foundation and the flexibility to learn new plays instead of just copying old ones.
8. Practice Safe Tackling
In addition to practicing plays and breaking through defensive lines, football players should also learn how to tackle in an effective and safe manner.
Dennis Hill at PlaySportsTV created a video on how to tackle safely. He offers step-by-step instructions coaches can duplicate when teaching tackling on the field. This ensures that players don’t hurt their heads or necks while tackling and that players getting tackled aren’t roughed up more than necessary.
9. Develop a Zero-Tolerance Policy for Bad Hits
Illegal tackles and heat first hits need to be discouraged at practice and during the game. The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages teams to have a zero-tolerance approach to bad hits. This might mean benching a player during the game for leading with his head or creating incentives to discourage the behavior.
Preventing bad hits starts with coaches. If a player thinks his coach will look the other way then he might think injury-causing hits are acceptable.
10. Watch for Distracted Players
Even the most dedicated student athletes get distracted by upcoming tests, jokes from their friends or cute classmates in the stands. Coaches need to keep an eye on players to make sure they’re focused on the game.
“Make sure every player has their ‘head in it’ — this means players need to be aware and focused,” the team at Youth Football Online writes.
By talking with players and understanding their school and life situations, coaches can know when to bench players too distracted to play safely.
11. Create an Emergency Action Plan
Coaches should develop emergency action plans that address potential worst case scenarios on the field.
“This includes simple things such as having a plan for severe weather, collecting and updating parent contact information, keeping maps of the facility handy and knowing the routes that emergency vehicles will take,” Gavin Porter writes. “EAPs also includes larger issues that require practice and planning, such as cardiac arrest and traumatic injury.”
Communicating these plans and running drills in case they occur can reduce panic and expedite care when a real emergency occurs.
12. Hold a Parent Meeting to Explain Your Policies
John T. Reed encourages coaches to host a meeting at the start of the year to explain the offense, defense and any special team plans. This actively involves parents in the playing process so they know where their child athlete stands and what role he has.
Addressing questions and concerns in a group setting can also limit the number of parent issues that arise throughout the year and create a channel for healthy communication.
13. Make Sure All Players Are Cleared by a Physician
The staff at Safe Kids Worldwide encourage coaches to mandate a doctor’s visit before the season starts. By scheduling pre-participation physical exams, or PPEs, parents and coaches can identify potential issues and prevent athletes from getting seriously injured.
For example, if a player has asthma or allergies, the coach can keep an inhaler nearby in case of an emergency. Making this part of your EAP can help teams identify possible emergencies to prepare for.
14. When in Doubt, Sit Them Out
The professionals at i9 Sports use the phrase “when in doubt, sit them out” to define their health policy. Even if athletes and parents think they’re ready to play after recovering from an injury, make sure a qualified health professional approves their return to the game.
Additionally, once a doctor or trainer approves injured athletes for play, keep them on light workouts for their first few days back.
15. Stay in Playing Shape
Some players start the year in better shape than others. Players that stay in shape in the off season have a better chance of playing successfully without getting injured.
“Plan on maintaining strength and flexibility during the off season with aerobic activities, strength activities, and endurance activities to stay in shape,” the staff at Winchester Hospital write.
This falls on both the players and coaches. Coaches shouldn’t let players take the field who can’t physically handle the challenges because they didn’t stay fit in the off season.
16. Schedule Enough Time for a Full Warm-Up
Coaches and athletes both need to make sure they take warm-ups seriously. Failing to fully stretch and get ready for practice can limit performance and exhaust young players. The writers at Insports listed some of the benefits of fully warming up before athletes take the field. A few include:
Dilating blood vessels and supplying the body with more oxygen and nutrients.
Raising body temperature for optimum flexibility.
Gradually increasing the heartrate to prepare for cardiovascular activity.
Lessening stress on joints to decrease the chance of injury.
A process that many players run through without thinking, warming up can have a significant impact on performance once an athlete takes the field.
17. Ask Trainers to Monitor Players During Ballistic Stretching
Ballistic stretching uses a series of bouncing movements to push your muscles father than they’re typically comfortable with. While this method of stretching is common for athletes, there are risks to overdoing it.
Rena Goldman cautions athletes against overexerting themselves when they’re trying to expand their range of motion. If a personal trainer or doctor recommends ballistic stretching for an athlete, make sure a trainer or professional is present to supervise thim. This ensures the right amount of exertion is used.
18. Follow the 10 Percent Rule for Training
According to The American College of Sports Medicine, there should be no more than 10 percent of an increase in training time, repetitions, and distance covered at each practice. This means that players shouldn’t jump from 10 repetitions to 30 repetitions from one day to the next in order to limit the chances of overexertion.
This isn’t a set rule, but players and coaches who maintain a ballpark 10 percent when practicing can reduce the team’s overall risk of sports injuries.
19. Incorporate Cool-Down Stretches Into Practice
Coaches should be an active part of the team’s cool down stretches to ensure players actually take the time to stretch before changing and returning to less strenuous activity. The professionals at the American Council on Exercise encourage coaches to use this time to recap the practice and discuss goals for next time. This enhances the value of the cool down stretch because athletes receive valuable feedback and information during the session.
These cool down stretches don’t have to be long. Coaches can typically pick five to six stretches each time before dismissing athletes for the day.
20. Hydrate Throughout the Game
While many athletes head to the coolers after running a play, they might not be getting enough water before and after a game. Hydration keeps your body functioning and boosts your energy.
“Water regulates your body temperature, lubricates joints and helps transport nutrients for energy and health,” Charmin Calamaris writes. “If you become dehydrated, your body will be unable to perform at its highest level, and you may experience fatigue, muscle cramps, dizziness or more serious symptoms.”
The only thing worse than experiencing these symptoms is trying to play through them, which can lead to a year-ending injury.
21. Emphasize Good Nutrition
“Exercising intensively speeds up metabolism, not only in children but also adults in general,” Amy writes at Goggles N More. “Young athletes need lots of protein and carbohydrates during training and actual games as it helps keep their muscles full of the required building blocks and their energy levels also remain up.”
Skipping breakfast, eating fries for lunch and downing a protein bar before practice isn’t going to give athletes the nutrition they need to thrive. Coaches should teach athletes the importance of maintaining a balanced diet and parents should ensure the food they need is available.
22. Use Adequate Padding to Reduce Contusions
According to Dr. Matthew Pecci at Muir Orthopaedic, deep contusions (bruises) account for 35 percent of all youth football injuries. With the proper padding and equipment, coaches and players can reduce damage to the body, including reducing a potential break to a bad bruise.
23. Don’t Use Worn Out Equipment
Many organizations use equipment until it breaks or is completely worn. Limited budgets and a desire to stretch resources are the main motivators behind this thriftiness. According at Phil West at Vitals, worn out equipment isn’t as effective and using it can increase injury chances. This is especially true with hand-me-down equipment, which might be ill-fitting and ineffective on new players.
At the end of each season, evaluate what equipment shouldn’t be used anymore and make a note to replace it over the summer or at the start of the new season.
24. Choose a Properly Fitting Mouth Guard
Mouthguards are a simple and low-cost way to prevent injuries to a youth athlete's face. The challenge is finding the right one. According to MomsTEAM there are three main types of mouthguards:
Stock mouthguards that cost a few dollars and come in small, medium, and large.
Boil and bite mouthguards which cost around $10 and creates a mouthguard specific to an athlete's bite.
Custom mouthguards created by a dentist or orthodontist. These typically cost around $50.
The best mouthguard is the one that your athlete actually wears. If he refuses a stock guard, check to see if the boil and bite option is more comfortable.
25. Build Rest Into Your Workout Routine
Burnout is a common problem for youth athletes, both mentally and physically. It’s up to the coaching staff to build rest into a workout routine during the regular season and off season.
“Never underestimate the power of rest, whether that is a nap, a day off from practice, or a short term break from the sport,” the team at San Diego Sports Domination writes.
Even Tom Brady took a day off after the Super Bowl before returning to his workouts.
Most of these tips require minimal changes to your organization, but together they can have a significant impact on player safety and set your team up for a great season.
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