Although football dominates the country’s airwaves like no other game, some people view it as an endangered sport.
Mounting scrutiny about the lasting impact of concussions has generated controversy for the National Football League, calling into question the long-term stability of a game that could risk the health of anyone playing it.
Fairfax County has been near the forefront of a recent movement to preserve and enhance football by improving instruction for youths. Last year, local coaches fell in step with Heads Up Football, a national youth program aimed at improving tackling techniques to foster a safer game. This summer, they’re setting the tone for the rest of country by making sure each coach in the area knows the correct ways to teach kids about the most critical safety techniques.
After becoming one of three districts in the country to run pilot programs with Heads Up last summer, Fairfax was the first school district this summer to make Heads Up training mandatory for all of its high school football coaches. Centreville High School varsity coach Chris Haddock and former Annandale High School coach Dick Adams have led the charge, running clinics throughout the summer to teach coaches tackling techniques that keep the head out of the play.
The program is an initiative of USA Football, the governing body of U.S. football at the youth and amateur levels. An independent nonprofit supported by the NFL, USA Football created Heads Up to encourage proper instruction of safety techniques at the grass-roots level and ease concerns of parents hesitant about the game’s risks.
Haddock and Adams completed a nationally accredited certification program at USA Football headquarters in Indianapolis to become USA Football master trainers. They now are making sure that each high school in the Northern Region has at least one player safety coach who will take what they’ve learned in coaches training clinics to the rest of the coaches at their respective schools.
“I think number one, it’s going to make football safer for kids that are playing it,” Haddock said. “We have a lot of smart people in the world, but we haven’t come up with a helmet that stops concussions, and we haven’t come up with shoulder pads that stop shoulder injuries. So we have to develop fundamentals and techniques that are safer. I think this program achieves that.”
Haddock led a player safety clinic for about 50 Northern Region coaches June 1, then another one a week later at Centreville High for more than 30 coaches from across the state.
The clinics focused mostly on concussion awareness and tackling training, while also touching on helmet and shoulder pad fitting. Coaches took the field to practice the drills that they will use with their players, making sure to keep their eyes up so they didn’t lead with their heads when they tackled.
“In the clinic, we actually did the drill, so we know what to expect the kids to do,” said Tim DiVecchia, who is in his seventh year coaching Southwestern Youth Association football. “A lot of times, we’ll just sit there and look at a chalkboard and videos and diagrams, but this was immersive. You put the coaches in the drills and point out things to know what to look for.”
DiVecchia said the key is establishing a consistent instructional framework that will keep players and coaches of each team on the same page. In the past, kids have gone from one coach to the next and been forced to learn new terminology along the way. The mixture of techniques and terminology can confuse players and lead to inconsistencies that worsen over time.
In the second year of his involvement with Heads Up, DiVecchia hopes that the techniques he’s teaching will become second nature to his players.
“Some of the kids last year were new, but it wasn’t like they were thinking. They knew what they had to do,” DiVecchia said. “Whether their bodies would respond or not was just a matter of how much practice they got.”
Coaches such as DiVecchia, Haddock and Adams have also educated parents about the safety benefits of Heads Up. Haddock said the highest rate of concussions in youth sports occurs in girls soccer, and the highest rate of concussions in the United States stems from bike accidents.
“What’s a key element, as well, is that there are parents who sit in the stands who really don’t know a whole lot about football,” Haddock said. “I think involving parents with what’s going on in this program is a key element to allaying a lot of concerns and to ensure that people really feel comfortable not only with the fundamentals and all the different techniques, but that their coaches know what they’re doing. That gives great peace of mind to a lot of parents that may not know a whole lot about it.”
Haddock said programs such as Heads Up will combine with advancements in sports medicine to keep football from ending anytime soon. “I want to see football perpetuate and continue and flourish, and I think this program is going to be a big part of that,” he said.