The rate of sport-related concussions during high school football practice in Wisconsin decreased by 57 percent following a rule change limiting the amount and duration of full-contact activities during practice, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health.
The news did not surprise Stoughton coach Dan Prahl, who estimated his program has dealt with only three or four concussions since taking over as the head coach in 2015.
“We’re so much better with it,” Prahl said, “from the technology to the knowledge of tackling. I’m not surprised one bit, but that’s a good thing.”
The study, which was published online in The American Journal of Sports Medicine, examined whether new rules passed by the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association before the 2014 season reduced the rate of sport-related concussions compared to the previous two seasons. The rules prohibit full-contact activities during the first week of preseason practice and limit full contact to 75 minutes in week two and 60 minutes per week (excluding games) in week three and beyond. The rules were among the first in the nation designed and implemented to reduce the incidence of sport-related concussions during high school football practice.
“Our analysis shows that targeted rule changes can have a beneficial effect on lowering the risk for concussions,” said Tim McGuine, a scientist in the department of orthopedics and rehabilitation at UW SMPH. “It’s imperative that we identify strategies that keep our student athletes safe while still maintaining the integrity of the game, and this particular measure appears to do both.”
A total of 2,081 high school football athletes enrolled and participated in the study in 2012-13 (before the rule change), and 945 players participated in 2014 (after the rule change). Players self-reported previous concussion and demographic information and athletic trainers recorded athletic exposures, concussion incidence, and days lost for each concussion. An athletic exposure during practice was classified as being full contact (full speed with contact); drill contact (full speed until contact above the waist, and the player is not taken to the ground); or no contact (no full or drill contact). Researchers found there were 15 concussions per 1,000 athletic exposures during practice in 2014 compared to 86 per 1,000 athletic exposures during the previous two years.
Opponents of the new rules argued that limiting contact during practice would lead to poor technique, ultimately increasing the risk of injury during competition. However, the data did not support that argument, with the rate of concussions in games during the 2014 season remaining the same as it was before the rule change.
Prahl and his coaching staff teach two types of tackling.
“We first teach the perfect technique where the head is across the body,” Prahl said. “But a kid isn’t often in that perfect position, so we teach the rugby style where the head is behind the ball carrier. We shoot our hands forward, suck the legs in, then gator roll. Guys go down easy and both guys don’t get hurt. With both, we keep the face out of it.”
Stoughton often opts for an onside kick or pops the ball up to force a fair catch instead of traditional deep kickoffs. The Vikings go for the ball instead of trying to break down and stop a returner running at full speed.
“It’s a 50/50 ball, and guys aren’t getting dinged up going full speed,” Prahl said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if kickoffs are nixed from the game in a few years.”