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Wake Forest researchers tackle how to make football safer for kids

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Each year more than 3 million children go to the hospital for sports-related injuries, including brain trauma. A team of researchers working at Wake Forest Baptist Health is working on finding ways to keeps your kids safe on the field.

Practice makes perfect, but is trying to perfect certain plays a bad practice? That’s what Dr. Joel Stitzel and his team at Wake Forest Baptist Health are trying to tackle.

“I think our first goal is to improve the safety of football. To do that, we’re studying the types of impacts that kids receive and young athletes in high school receive in both practices and games,” Dr. Stitzel said.

Every impact is recorded from a hit to someone tripping on the field.

“At the beginning of the season, we instrument the helmets with the sensor and basically we just jam it up with the padding there. It stays in there. It’s not going to fall out or anything,” Biomedical Engineering Graduate Student Tanner Filben said.

While the coaches watch the plays, the researchers watch a screen displaying data of impacts captured by the helmets.

“The reason we’re recording these is because it’s a general measure of the severity of the impact so we’re able to see how hard they are getting hit,” Filben said.

Stitzel says on average, in just one season, a high school athlete can have more than 500 to 550 head impacts. Middle school football players can have around 300 to 350.

“Where we initially found two-thirds of impact happening during practices, by adjusting the way we do things in practices we can actually reduce that to half or less,” he said.

Researchers are looking at the graphs and charts to see what moves might be causing the biggest impacts and how changes during practice may reduce injuries on the field. They say there’s more control on how practice is run that can help.

According to research published by Wake Forest in December of 2018, last season data from six youth teams showed full-speed tackling and blocking drills had the highest head impact severity and frequency. But the team says cutting down on the time spent practicing contact drills might not be the solution to limiting head impact. It could also mean changing how the drills are taught.

“If it’s an essential part of the game and a kid can do it effectively with less practice on that technique then that’s a reasonable thing to try to do,” Stitzel said.

Pop Warner, a national youth football league has already made changes to reduce head injuries. The organization banned starting in the three-point stance for players. The league says youth athletes starting with their heads down increases the risk for an injury.

The researchers are also expanding the study of head injuries outside of football. Using a special mouthpiece with built in sensors, they can now follow practice in sports that don’t require a helmet, including soccer and hockey.

“One of the biggest limitations in the field is that the sensors we use are just for a specific helmet, and it’s just for a specific sport which is predominantly played by boys and men, but we want to study women playing sports and girls playing sports,” he said. “So we’re really excited about this technology because it’s a game-changer in allowing us to study a lot more people and a lot more sports.”

The ultimate goal for the research team at Wake Forest is to make the game safer without changing the game.

“We’re not out to destroy the game of football or soccer or hockey or anything like that. We’re just interested in information being provided to people so they can make good decisions,” he said.

One of the things researchers are emphasizing is the need to study this over multiple seasons to get better data. They are working with the National Institute of Health and other institutions to continue the research and find the best ways to get their findings implemented to make sports safer.

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