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 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.

Verona football coach Dave Richardson is a proponent of education in tackling techniques playing a larger role in reducing the concussion rate.

“Proper tackling techniques and blocking techniques to me have been the biggest influence on lowering concussions,” Richardson said. “We have always had the non-contact days, but now we have that progression. I think that progression was more toward heat-related illness.”

Last fall, the Verona Wildcat youth football program implemented a no-tackling program for fourth graders. This year, tackling will be eliminated at the fifth-grade level. Instead, fourth and fifth graders will play flag football through the Verona recreation department.

Starting in 2020, sixth graders will play a hybrid version of flag and tackle football. Richardson said he believes that hybrid version will be the first of its kind in the area, as it will be tailored for sixth graders to learn the proper fundamentals of tackling.

As a result, he said it will bridge the gap between learning the fundamentals of tackling and the science behind when is the right time to start contact football.

Tim McGuine, a scientist in the department of orthopedics and rehabilitation at UW SMPH, sees the benefits of a progression toward contact have made.

“Our analysis shows that targeted rule changes can have a beneficial effect on lowering the risk for concussions,” McGuine said. “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.”

Verona adopted the Seattle Seahawks’ tackling drill progression several years ago, and Richardson believes a change in teaching contact has had a larger impact of reducing concussions.

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.

Other researchers on the study include Drs. Adam Pfaller and Alison Brooks, both with the UW Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation, Division of Sports Medicine; and Scott Hetzel, UW Department of Biostatistics and Informatics.