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Can Football Without Helmets Lead To Fewer Concussions?

On the field, the UNH Wildcats had a nearly perfect season, advancing into the playoffs as the top ranked team in their division. But off the field, a study using this team is trying to figure out how to reduce concussions. The big idea is to protect player’s heads by having them practice - without a helmet.

It’s no big secret that football, from the NFL down to Pee-Wee leagues, has a concussion problem. And there are lots of efforts out there to fix it: new helmets, softer turf, gentler tackling rules, even diagnostics on the field to identify concussions right after a hit.

Credit Jack Rodolico
This tiny sensor keeps track of how many hits this player takes on a given day, plus the strength and direction of those hits, using tri-axial accelerometer and gyroscope technology.

"But there’s been very little focus on actually what’s at the root of it: changing the technique," says Erik Swartz, a UNH professor of Kinesiology.

Kinesiology is the study of human movement. Swartz's idea – to have players practice without helmets –  came from his time playing rugby.

"A better helmet, for its technology to work, actually requires that there’s an impact to the head," says Swartz. "You keep your head out of the way in a tackle in rugby because it’s not protected. It will hurt."

Swartz’s hypothesis? If you give football players a sort of “rugby awareness,” they’ll be more likely to think about where their heads are, and keep it out of harm’s way.

Helmets Off, Eyes Up

Here’s how the study works.

There are two study groups, each with 25 players. The control group always practices with a helmet, while the treatment group takes their helmets off for a short tackling drill during each practice.

"I take my helmet off for practice. I’m in that group!" says Donald Goodrich, a running back. 

By the way, Goodrich had a concussion playing football during his freshman year.

"Everything kind of started spinning on me a little bit," says Goodrich.

In the locker practice prior to practice or a game, both the control and treatment groups get a little sensor behind their ears that measures impacts to the head.

Credit Jack Rodolico
Head Coach Sean McDonnell (L) crouches in front of his players as they run through a drill.

Head Coach Sean McDonnell, or Coach Mac, says from the moment the helmet comes off, the drill is highly focused on strategy. Players are crouched in an athletic position - squatting, arms braced, head forward. When a coach yells, "Hut!" the player charges another player holding a big, padded shield.

"The biggest thing that we talk about is keeping the eyes and head up....And then you want to tackle chest to chest, not leading with your helmet or your face," says Coach Mac.  

"We have coaches constantly...nagging at us," says Goodrich.

Nagging is a good word for it. Coaches and trainers yell the same commands repeatedly at each player as he charges the shield. "Eyes up!" "Athletic position!" "Run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run!"

The short drill is intense, but the coaches follow up the intensity with lots of positive reinforcement for players who get it right.

Hits On The Field, Science In The Locker Room

After this very short drill, which the team has been running during practice all season, the helmets go back on. The big idea is to simply get players to look where they’re going and not hit with their head, neck, or shoulders. Overtime, the theory is the treatment group will have less head trauma than the control group.

Credit Erik Swartz, University of New Hampshire, Durham.
A screen shot from Erik Swartz's laptop illustrates a football hit happens in a couple tens of a second, as well as the number of hits a player can take on one day.

Back in the locker room, Schwartz plugs all 50 sensors into, essentially, a computerized suitcase that stores the devices. Once plugged in, they transmit data to a software interface on a laptop.

On the screen, Swartz can graph each individual hit in G-forces over time. He can also count how many hits each player took, which direction those hits came from, and the strength of each hit.

Honing in on a graphic for one player on one day, Swartz can see that player took 45 hits - that's 45 arrows pointing at a virtual head, with each arrow a colored blue, orange or red.

"The color roughly portrays the magnitude of the impact," says Swartz.

Of the 45 hits this player took on this particular day, nine were serious hits directly to the head. The graph illustrates how serious head trauma happens in just tenths of a second.

When a football player gets a concussion, he’s taking a hit twice the strength of an F-16 pilot in a jet roll.

Credit Pennsylvania State University
This chart shows that a football player who gets a concussion undergoes a hit with twice the G-force of an F-16 pilot in a jet roll.

Small Study, Big Money

Football’s head trauma problem isn’t just about big hits. It’s also about repeated hits overtime.

The NFL is paying attention to the hard science happening on the Wildcats’ field. The league, GE and Under Armour funded Swartz with a $500,000 Head Health Challenge grant.

Credit Jack Rodolico
Erik Swartz holds one of the tiny sensors that he hopes can bring down head trauma rates from Pee-Wee football to the NFL.

And here’s what’s really interesting. Swartz is one of the 20 researchers given these grants in the last year, and all the other projects focus on stronger gear and better concussion diagnostics. No one but Swartz is trying to change behavior – to address a basic human desire to protect yourself in a sport where huge men try to flatten one another.

"If you look on the sidelines, let’s say, after there’s a touchdown in football, often times the players will head-butt themselves," says Swartz. "They probably wouldn’t do that if they didn’t have a helmet on."

Swartz will have the chance to test this theory as he expands the study into three high schools next year. The Wildcats study will extend into the post season, and next year.

Before joining NHPR in August 2014, Jack was a freelance writer and radio reporter. His work aired on NPR, BBC, Marketplace and 99% Invisible, and he wrote for the Christian Science Monitor and Northern Woodlands.
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