Youth football coaches sat around a room Saturday at the Spokane YMCA and had safety regarding concussions drilled into their heads.
Head-injury awareness has been heightened in what many view as a violent sport. Concussions have been further thrust into the spotlight through litigation by former players who claim the National Football League overlooked head injuries that have caused debilitating effects.
“In the old days, a coach would hold up three fingers and ask, ‘How many fingers am I holding up.’ The player would say ‘two’ and the coach would say, ‘close enough, get back out there,’” master trainer Thomas Bainter said. “Those days are over. Now we have a five-step return-to-play protocol.”
Eighteen area youth football coaches sat through the eight-hour seminar by Bainter. At the end, they were all certified by the NFL-sponsored USA Football as player safety coaches. Their job is to now go back to their organizations and pass that knowledge on to all of the other coaches.
“We can teach youth coaches and trickle it all the way up to the NFL. Can you eliminate every concussion? No way. But we are reducing the risk,” Bainter said. “We are teaching techniques to make it a better game.”
When a player breaks a leg or suffers a cut, the injury is immediately recognizable and coaches react. But players often are able to return to the action after getting their “bell rung.”
“We were putting kids back in too early. We didn’t know any better,” said Bainter, who is Bothell High School’s football coach. “About 90 percent of what medical experts know about concussions has been learned in the last seven years. Now we are teaching tackling and blocking without using the head. It’s basically how we are going to save the game.”
Bainter compared the recent controversy over football concussions to the efforts by former President Theodore Roosevelt to save college football after the 1905 season. That year, the Chicago Tribune labeled college football the “death harvest” after 19 players died and 137 suffered serious injuries.
Bainter said his statistics show that the number one cause of concussions, per capita, in the United States is bicycling. Soccer also has more concussions than youth football, he said.
“We want to tell … moms and kids, ‘We know there is a lot of negative press out there,’” Bainter said. “This is what we are doing to make it better.”
Bainter’s presentation was based on what he called the five pillars. They include coaching education; proper helmet and shoulder pad fitting; heat and hydration techniques; concussion awareness and return-to-play protocol; and heads-up tackling, which teaches kids to avoid using their heads when blocking or tackling.
“I’m mostly happy that there is a unified effort to get everybody on the same page,” said Mo Dunkle, a youth football coach from Sandpoint. “A lot of coaches are in the dark about the right things to do. It’s a great presentation.”
Dunkle said one of the biggest hurdles for coaches to overcome is how to deal with injuries to star players. “It limits their team’s ability to play well,” he said. “But it’s the unseen damage that could be more severe than the other” injuries.
The YMCA has made it mandatory for all of its youth coaches to receive similar training, said YMCA youth sports director Pat Estes.
“I think this is the future of football,” Estes said. “We have to re-train our coaches. Smarter play makes for fewer injuries.”