A two-year push to prevent concussions and other injuries in Fairfax County high school sports is showing encouraging results, according to data released by the school system.
Statistics collected by Fairfax County public schools indicated that the number of injuries sustained by football players declined by 16 percent over the past year, and the number of concussions by 28 percent. There were similar declines in the incidence of concussions and other injuries among lacrosse players.
School officials attributed the reduction in concussions and other injuries to measures that began two years ago to increase awareness and educate coaches and players about injury prevention.
Bill Curran, director of student activities and athletics programs for the school system, said Fairfax County was the first high school program in the country to implement “Heads Up Football,” a program developed by the nonprofit organization USA Football. The program emphasizes proper tackling technique to minimize helmet contact, he said.
“It’s like a curriculum for tackling,” Curran said. “It’s all about using the best body position to make tackles instead of what you see on ESPN or in the NFL . . . where they’re kind of throwing their bodies to tackle.
“It takes the head out of the game, which you don’t really need . . . for tackling,” he added. “It migrates more toward using the arms, shoulders, body, instead of the head.”
USA Football developed the Heads Up program for youth organizations, and Fairfax worked with them to develop a high school version, Curran said.
Bringing the football coaches together in the same room to discuss injury prevention was “the real gem of the whole thing,” Curran said. “They came up with significant ideas around their practice planning and tools.”
When the lacrosse coaches got together, some raised concerns about significant injuries caused by checking, Curran said. They developed Check Smart, a program focusing on proper checking techniques to make lacrosse safer without fundamentally changing the game, he said.
Although the number of injuries in lacrosse decreased the first year the program was in place, there were increases in concussions and other injuries sustained by football players. It was not until the second year that the number of football injuries dropped significantly.
Curran attributed the first-year increase partly to the focus on recognizing possible head injuries.
“We put a significant emphasis on the identification [of injuries] on the players’ and the coaches’ side, so inevitably we were going to see an uptick in injury reports,” Curran said. “If a player says, ‘I have a headache,’ we’re going to put them in a concussion protocol and record it as a concussion in the reporting data.”
The program also trains players to recognize and report when their teammates exhibit symptoms of concussions, Curran said.
“The players [are] not often going to take themselves out,” he said. “They’ll do things to try to keep themselves on the field.”
The number of concussions and other injuries in 2014-2015 in both football and lacrosse fell to the lowest levels in four years, according to the school system’s data.
“The one-year decline is an encouraging sign and an important step toward what we hope is a trend,” USA Football spokesman Joe Frollo said in an e-mail. “We are seeing . . . that Heads Up Football and similar programs are leading to a change in behavior for the better, and data indicates that coach education can advance player safety.”
Curran said Fairfax County is expanding its injury prevention efforts to other sports. Cheerleading coaches met to address injuries resulting from throws and tosses, and are now implementing changes in their practices, he said. The school system will take a similar approach with wrestling in the winter and track in the spring, he said.
Barnes is a freelance writer.