The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association is heralding the move as the lowest level of contact codified by any major football jurisdiction, including the NFL, NCAA, Ivy League, USA Football and Pop Warner. Previously, Garden State teams were allotted 90 minutes of full-contact practice per week and an unlimited amount during the preseason. The changes come at the recommendation of football safety advocacy group Practice Like Pros and after approval by the New Jersey Football Coaches Association.
Michigan’s high school sports governing body is a procedural vote away from adopting the standards, as well.
“I think it’s a good opportunity for us to show the families in our state that we’re taking care of our kids,” said Kevin Carty Jr., the football coach at Hillsborough High, about 50 miles southwest of downtown New York. “We have a lot of pride in New Jersey about how good our players and coaches are, and there’s enough drills and things we can do coaching-wise where we can still instill toughness and have them ready for games with fewer injuries.”
The changes come as high school football participation in the state is plummeting. Nearly 2,500 fewer students played high school football in New Jersey in 2017, the last year for which data is available, than 2010, according to the National Federation of High School State Associations. That’s close to a 10-percent decrease, more than half of which came between the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
That far outstrips the pace of the national decline in high school football. Enrollment in the sport has dropped from more than 1.1 million players down to 1.04 million, since 2010, according to NFHS data.
“When you’re looking for numbers of kids to come out for football, there’s a hang-up about kids getting hurt,” said Charlie Gallagher, the football coach at Princeton High. “I think parents are under the impression that we’re in practice headhunting every day.”
Instead, coaches say, in recent years they’ve generally adhered to self-imposed restrictions on full-contact sessions, called “live” or “team” periods. It comes during a push by national football leaders to mitigate injury risk and out of concern players won’t be fresh on game day after a week of grueling hits.
Terry O’Neil, the founder of Practice Like Pros, tours the country meeting with coaching groups and demonstrating how they can plan a week’s worth of practices with only 15 minutes to go “live.” Coaches are often skeptical at first — water breaks at an unorganized football practice can last 15 minutes — but when they watch film of the practices, they get more interested, he said.
“When coaches see it and they see the benefits of it and having kids ready to play, they get it,” O’Neil said. “And even if a coach isn’t concerned about injury — let’s say they only care about winning — they should like this as well. It will mean they have kids fresh for Friday night rather than having four or five on the sideline unable to play.”
Coaches can replace drills of tackling a ball carrier or blocking a linebacker with hitting a dummy or a weighted bag. Teams can remove tackling from scrimmages by “thudding,” or wrapping up an opposing player and halting his momentum without bringing him to the ground, O’Neil suggests. Teams can eliminate contact completely by “going full speed to the ball,” when two players go through the motions as if they were to hit one another, but separate just before the moment of impact.
“I don’t think anybody wants to get thrown down to the ground,” Gallagher said. “We’d rather focus on technique and form tackling and 15 minutes of ‘live’ contact is enough to do that. I think the notion is that it won’t really affect how we practice very much. We do a lot of work against dummies and bags. And if we have to curtail the amount we hit a little bit, we’ll find another drill.”