Should Football Players Train Without Helmets?

A recent study published in the Journal of Athletic Training revealed that a college football team that began training 1-2 times a week without helmets saw a 30% reduction in the incidence of head impacts for players by the end of the season, as compared to a control group of helmeted players.

The idea that football players should practice sans helmets in order to reduce brain injury sounds ludicrous. When Erik Swartz, the chairman of the department of kinesiology at the University of New Hampshire, first approached the school's football coaches with the idea to implement a helmet-free training regimen, they were understandably hesitant.

Swartz based his conjecture on the fact that head injuries among football players increased in the 50's and 60's with the introduction of hard-shell protective headgear. He also noted that rugby players, who tackle each other at the legs rather than head-to-head collision, suffer far fewer head injuries than football players. Using this knowledge, Swartz created training drills for UNH football players that focused on proper tackling technique and prohibited direct spearing of the head.


The typical high school football player experiences roughly 1,000 head impacts by the end of a season. Common sense would dictate that repeated head collisions over extended periods of time results in higher risk of brain conditions - a conjecture that was confirmed by a study revealing that 87 out of 91 former NFL players tested positive for the brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Although the NFL placed a ban on players tackling with a blow from the crown of the head in 2013, football head injuries captured the public spotlight last year after post-mortem studies on a deceased 25-year-old ex-football player revealed extremely high rates of CTE. Plenty of research has been conducted on ways to reduce head injury in football players but most has been focused on how to improve helmets and other headgear - until now.


By the end of the season, the football players who participated in Swartz's helmet-free training program were able to tackle each other and play successfully without using their heads as battering rams. What's also compelling (at least from a practical standpoint), is that the coaches observed that these players were tackling more effectively than the control group of players who still practiced with helmets.

Swartz's findings underscore the importance of proper form and technique from a medical and tactical perspective. There isn't sufficient evidence at this point for football coaches to start banning helmets during practice, but the unexpected success of the helmetless training program pushed Swartz and his team to begin an extensive study with college and high school football players to examine the program at every level of game play.

This weekend millions of fans across the nation will be watching the NFL divisional playoffs, cheering on their respective teams over beer and buffalo wings. Football has an interesting way of bringing strangers together and making enemies of friends (seriously - when the Seahawks beat the Saints in the 2013 playoffs, I had at least a couple friends who wouldn't speak to me for days). Whether you love college football, pro football, or just cheering on your local high school team, I would argue that baseball isn't America's national past time - football is.


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