Hitting less in football practice: a new mantra for young athletes

Hitting less in football practice: a new mantra for young athletes
NFL Hall of Famer Warren Moon, who suffered his first concussion on a practice field at the age of 11, will take part in a panel and clinic for youth and high school football coaches across California on football practice techniques that minimize contact. (Cliff Schiappa)

As anyone who has a son playing football knows, it's a gladiatorial sport. Whether it's at Tuesday afternoon's practice or under the lights Friday night, a young football player pictures himself in a highlight reel, "lighting up" an opponent with bone-crunching fury to the familiar soundtrack: "da-da-DA, da-da-DA."

As a filmmaker, one-time NFL team executive and decorated television sports producer, Terry O'Neil helped create those fantasies. He was part of television's dream machine, cutting and splicing game-day heroics to celebrate footbal's violence and athleticism.


But it's a new era: Concern is growing over the long-term consequences of concussion among athletes, participation in youth football is on the decline, suits and legislation are targeting football at all levels. And O'Neil is leading a group of athletes and coaches who have actually been in those highlight-reels in an initiative to reduce injuries among young athletes.

As youth football season winds down, O'Neilplans to crisscross California with a clutch of football notables selling a new mantra for young football teams: Minimize the contact in practice. With the help of NFL Hall of Famers Warren Moon and Anthony Muñoz, O'Neil's initiative -- called "Practice Like Pros" -- aims to convince youth, high school and college athletes and their coaches that most of football's bone-crunching fury should be limited to game day.

Their message: For professional players, the sacks, tackles, blocks and take-downs that you see in highlight reels happen almost exclusively in games these days; on practice days, modern-day pros break down the skills needed for games and practice them without bringing their teammates to the ground, knocking heads or breaking bones.

Practice accounts for roughly 80% of the time young football players spend at the sport. O'Neil and his team are betting that if their teams adopt practices that minimize contact during that time, they'll reduce injuries of all sorts. Most importantly, they stand to drive down the accumulation of hits to the brain that are the suspected cause, in many veteran players, of depression, suicide and neurodegenerative disorders.

"I do believe you have a cumulative amount of hits in your system," said Buddy Teevens, head coach of Dartmouth College's Division 1 NCAA football team, a convert to the "minimum-contact practice" and a member of the "Practice Like Pros" group. "If you use them up by midseason, man, you're bleeding out at the end."

In planned sessions this February at UCLA, Santa Clara, UC Davis and in San Diego's Balboa Park, the "Practice Like Pros" team will use videos -- and starpower -- to demonstrate that non-contact and limited-contact drills "have made top levels of the game safer than high school football," said O'Neil. They'll be joined as well by Seattle Seahawks defensive passing game coordinator Rocky Seto and by Patrick Larimore, UCLA's 2011 team captain and a defensive MVP who was forced by multiple concussions to retire from football on the eve of his senior season.

As things stand now, youth football players appear to be doing some serious damage to themselves and their teammates on the practice field. According to the Sports Legacy Institute, an organization dedicated to researching, treating and preventing brain trauma in athletes, 60% to 70% of head trauma in high school football players is suffered in practice, not in games. That doesn't count the number of broken limbs, torn ligaments and general wear and tear that happens when teammates go hard against each other in practice.

In California, and in a growing number of states, that is about the change. California Assembly Bill 2127, which mandates less contact on high school football practice fields, takes effect Jan. 1. In a statement released this week, Roger Blake, executive director of the California Interscholastic Federation, which governs competitive school athletics across the state, called the Practice Like Pros clinic "a 'must attend' for every football coach in California."

"Their proven techniques work at any level, not just the pros, and will help make our game safer," Blake said.

Changing the way coaches coach and young football players practice won't be easy: Dartmouth's Teevins remembers when he told his staff they were going to minimize the ";nutcracker"; and other drills that saw players routinely tackled, blocked and brought hard to the ground by their own teammates.

"They need the contact," "we've gotta see results," Teevins was told. "The defensive guys said 'you're crazy!'" he recounted.

"We're tough and physical on game day; how 'bout being smart on practice days?" he told them.

Teevins instituted drills that focused on reading plays and practicing the skills needed to pressure and defend quarterbacks and block for and bring runners down -- all with minimal contact.

"I think we're on the right track," said Teevins. Noting that his team's experience is anecdotal, he said the reduction in shoulder and knee injuries, and concussion "has been phenomenal."


Some background stats: A 2011 study prepared for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that between 2001 and 2009, the number of Americans younger than 19 treated each year for concussions rose to 250,000 from 150,000. And a National Collegiate Athletic Assn. survey of 15 college sports recently showed that between the academic years 1988-89 and 2003-04, the overall reported concussion rate doubled, from 1.7 to 3.4 concussions per 1,000 "athletic exposures."