Chris G. Koutures, MD, FAAP Pediatric and sports medicine specialist

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USA Volleyball Mens/Womens National Teams
CS Fullerton Intercollegiate Athletics
Chapman University Dance Department
Orange Lutheran High School

Co-Author of Acclaimed Textbook

Pediatric Sports Medicine: Essentials for Office Evaluation

Orange County Physician Of Excellence, 2015 and 2016


Less Football Practice Contact Time May Mean Less Concussions

In the evolving discussion regarding the impact of limited high school contact football practice time on concussion risk, findings from the University of Wisconsin suggest that less contact practices may indeed result in less football-related concussions.

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The state of Wisconsin was one year ahead of California in mandating contact practice time restrictions. Starting with the 2014 high school fall season, the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) prohibited contact in practice for the first week and limited full contact to 75 minutes per week for week 2, with 60 maximum minutes per week for week three and beyond. These limits are more restrictive than in California where two 90 minute contact practice sessions are allowed per week during the high school football season, thought the definitions of full contact are similar (game speed drills/situations where full tackles are made at competitive pace and players are taken to the ground).

Licensed Athletic Trainers at several Wisconsin high schools recorded incidence and severity for each sport-related concussion, and compared the two years previous to the rule change (2081 players) with data from the first year of the new limitations (945 players). 

Significant findings included

·        The rate of sport-related concussion sustained in practice was more than twice as high in the two seasons prior to the rule change

·        There was no change in the rate of concussion suffered in games pre and post-rule change

·        There was no difference in the severity of concussion (defined as average days lost from football activity) pre (13 days lost) and post-rule change (14 days lost)

·        Tackling was the primary mechanism of injury in 46% of sport-related concussions

·        Years of football playing experience did not affect the incidence of sport-related concussion in the first year of the new limitations

The authors concluded that limitations on contact during high school football practice may be one effective measure to reduce the incidence of sport-related concussion

How might this relate to California?

This is a well-constructed and much needed initial evaluation on the outcomes of contact practice reductions in high school football, with subsequent years of analysis now being anticipated to see if the above findings hold true over multiple seasons.

The maximum allowed football contact times in Wisconsin are about 42% of the maximal time currently allowed in California, so one may wonder if that increased contact time may make direct extrapolations between the states more difficult. This is where a similar study after the 2015 California high school season is vital to measure the outcomes here in this state.

I was greatly impressed with the finding that there was no change in game-based concussion rate and that the years of previous playing experience not affecting the incidence of new concussion as two potentially landmark outcomes for the future of football safety.  Coherent arguments have been voiced that lack of appropriate contact practice time might increase risk for inexperienced or under-prepared players, especially in game time situations. This was particularly voiced for freshman players with no previous tackle football experience. I eagerly await future studies to see if these outcomes are consistent and robust.

The lack of change in severity (again, measured in days lost) brings up a couple of thoughts. The initial reaction might be a bit of disappointment, in that reduction of cumulative head impacts in practice should perhaps lead to a lower burden of injury with a concussive blow and hopefully a quicker recovery. One may not want to try and read much into using number of days lost as a strong measure of severity, for standard return-to-play protocols often mandate a minimum of 8-10 days off from full activity which could influence the return time possibly more than symptoms and other measures of severity.

One important subject not analyzed in this study was the incidence of non-concussion injury rates before and after the practice contact limits were enacted. Concerns have been issued over under-prepared players not confident in tackling techniques or changes in technique (hitting opponent lower in body, for example) both possibly contributing to less concussions, but more shoulder, elbow, knee, leg and other musculoskeletal injuries. 

Curious if any groups in California are interested or have proposed a similar analysis of our first year with the high school football practice limitations?