Growing up in football: Virginia Tech conducts new study on youth helmets

Most football players in America are younger than high-school age. But there’s very little data tracking exactly how children get hit on the field.

Focusing only on pre-high school aged players, the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab will publish what they call the first-ever ratings showing how well youth football helmets protect against head injuries. The report is due in early 2019 and is based on data collected over the past seven years.

Steve Rowson, associate professor of biochemical engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, said helmets sold for children are virtually identical to ones designed for older players.

“There’s practically no difference between them and it’s not because there’s no effort to do that, it’s because the data doesn’t exist to suggest how they should be different. We’re collecting that data now, and we’re putting processes in place to create a youth-specific helmet,” Rowson said.

Rowson said kids hit their heads less hard, but they also get injured more easily. He said it takes 25 percent less force for a child to get a concussion, compared to an adult.

Rowson’s team has previously done similar studies to rate helmets for varsity football players, cyclists and hockey players; and headgear for soccer players.

For the current project, six teams of middle-school-aged football players across the country are wearing helmets with sensors.

“What we want the sensors to do is remain in contact with the head when they get hit. We’re measuring how the head moves, not how the helmet moves,” Rowson said.

Engineers then look at the data from the sensors to learn how the athlete is hit, how hard, and where. They recreate the same type of impact in the lab with a dummy, wearing the various types of helmets available on the market. They measure how the dummy head reacts, to determine each helmet’s one-through-five star rating.

Polls have shown that a growing number of Americans believe that it isn’t safe for kids to play tackle football before high school, and some state lawmakers have tried to restrict the game to children 12 and up or even high school-age.

While manufacturers use the results to improve their helmets, Rowson said the team does not accept any funding from equipment manufacturers. Instead, this study on youth helmets is funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Thomas Boyd, 11, is one of the kids participating in the project. His helmet is outfitted with accelerometers, and members of Rowson’s team tracks collision data in real-time, from the football stands.

Boyd’s mother, Angelica Mendoza, said when he decided he wanted to play tackle football, “I got nervous. I love watching him play but that’s my baby boy. I don’t want him to get hurt.”

At this age, boys are in various stages of development. Mendoza said she gets especially nervous when her son plays against boys much larger in size.

Among the assistant coaches are Kendrick Gholston and Kevin Jones, who both played in college and in the National Football League. They said the conversation about how to protect oneself from concussions has completely changed over the last few years.

Gholston said when they sustained hits while playing in the NFL, they were given smelling salts.

“You break the sticks and it smells like ammonia, and it like, gives you a kick back and brings you back a little bit,” Gholston said.

Gholston said if the game is going to survive, coaches must teach a new generation of athletes to tackle differently.

“Most of them won’t play professional, so you don’t want a game that they’re playing in middle school or high school deter them from the rest of their lives,” Gholston said.

But he and Jones agree that improving helmets can help.

Rowson said the results of the study will be useful beyond the area of football.

“Not only can studying these youth football players inform better football helmet design, but we also use these data to design safer cars because if we know the impact forces associated with injury that can be translated to other industries like automotive design where you can prevent brain injuries and crashes better in kids because these data simply don’t exist,” he said.

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