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Get Your Head Out of the Game to Prevent TBI

Theo Howard runs with the ball as Josh Manchigiah chases after him for the tackle during practice at Orange Coast College, California, 2015. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Rebecca Eller)

As fall sports season begins for students and families, players can reduce the risk of a concussion by learning to tackle properly in sports such as football, lacrosse and rugby. Coaches may tell players to get their heads in the game, but players shouldn’t take that literally, warned an expert with the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center (DVBIC).

Learning to lead with the shoulder and not the head or helmet is important for all sports that involve contact, said Scott Livingston, director of education for DVBIC.

“Take the head out of the game,” he said. “Don’t use the head as a weapon. Don’t aim for an opponent’s head.”

Proper Technique

Of course, using your head to spear an opponent is illegal, but it’s also dangerous, and can cause serious injury to both players involved in the tackle.

“Tackling is a risk factor for head injuries, but particularly improper tackling,” Livingston said. “Tackling with your head down – which is known as ‘spearing’ – can result in serious brain and neck injury.”

USA Football, the sport’s national governing body, uses the term “heads up tackling” to help coaches and players use proper technique. From the youth level through college football, players learn not to lead with their heads. Tackling using the heads-up technique not only reduces concussions, but also neck injuries, Livingston said.

“Keep your head up and lead with your eyes,” Livingston said. “Heads up, eyes up is the preferred method coaches should be teaching athletes from the youngest Pee Wee players all the way up through the professional football league.”

Just keeping the head up isn’t enough, though, Livingston said. Players should strive not to hit each other anywhere in the head.

“You do not want to make direct contact with a top of the head (spearing) or the forehead,” he said.

Concussions in football

When watching a football game, it’s easy to assume that offensive or defensive line players are at greatest risk of head injury simply because they make the most contact with each other during the course of a game. That’s not so, Livingston said. Getting pushed, blocked or tackled to the ground does not mean a concussion is going to occur.

Studies at the high school, college and professional level show that most concussions occur because of a specific type of hit to the head.

“Most concussions in football are caused by getting a blow to the facemask or a blow to the side of the helmet that causes the head to rotate,” Livingston said. “This rotation of the head and neck is more damaging to the brain than an acceleration-deceleration (or back-and-forth) type of injury, because the brain can be forced to rotate on the brain stem. That’s where you can get damage internally to the brain. The vast majority of concussions occur because of rotational forces.”

Helmet myths

Parents often think that a helmet or other protective headgear will keep kids safe, but despite generations of improvements from the original leather headgear players wore in the early days of football, safety isn’t guaranteed, Livingston said.

“Obviously, helmets today do a better job than the leather helmets,” he said. However, “there is little reliable evidence that a concussion can be prevented with any of the current helmet designs. It is just not what they are designed to do.”

The effectiveness of helmets in preventing concussive injuries in any helmeted sport (such as football, lacrosse and ice hockey) is limited. No change in rules or improvement in equipment will as effectively reduce head injury as much as simply learning how to tackle properly, Livingston said.

“Helmets don’t prevent concussions,” Livingston said. “Helmets prevent skull fractures, head or facial lacerations, and other significant brain injuries; they were never designed to protect against concussive injuries.”

For more information about concussion safety visit the DVBIC website.

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This page was last updated on: September 14, 2017.