'Heads up' program makes football safer
Roughly ten years ago, Kasson-Mantorville offensive coordinator Terry Donovan remembers when his son, Riley, was first learning about the game of football. After becoming enamored with the sport, he would sit down, turn on ESPN and watch Monday Night Countdown.
During the network’s pregame show, they would have a segment showing the top hits of the week called “Jacked Up.” As the bone-crunching collisions were shown one-by-one, the commentating crew would scream “You got jacked up!” That intensity made the segment wildly popular and was one of the most anticipated segments of the show every week.
Ten years later, Donovan has a sixth grader, T.J., currently going through the youth levels of the K-M football program and follows his big brother’s ritual of watching Monday Night Countdown. However, “Jacked Up” has been replaced with another segment “C’mon, Man,” which highlights the biggest bloopers and brain cramps of the week.
Just that simple switch has shown the effort that the game of football has made toward player safety as studies revolving around CTE and other injuries have put the risk of playing football at any level into question. However, the way the game is currently being taught has made football much different than it used to be.
“In a ten year span, the way there is a big difference in the way they teach football,” Donovan observed. “Kids don’t learn to take somebody’s head off or how to launch themselves into somebody anymore. They learn a good, safe tackle and the game is going to be better because of that.”
Donovan has a good idea of that transformation as he has worked as a Master Trainer for USA Football for the past three years. The job has required going across the country as Donovan and roughly 100 other trainers have spread new information to youth and high school programs on how to teach the game of football the right way.
One of the key initiatives has been through the “Heads Up” program which teaches proper fundamentals for tackling and blocking while also teaching coaches the right way to prepare their players for the games.
With practices focused on concussion recognition, proper hydration and planning to limit the number of contact between practices, it’s clear that the certified coaches learn just as much on how to be safe as the players do.
“If the coaches are better trained, they can take better care of the kids,” Donovan explained. “Some coaches have been removed from the sport for a while and in the 80s, all you learned was to be tough and how long you could go without water. With the information we share, it allows coaches and even coaches that haven’t been around the sport to get trained and teach kids to do it the right way.”
The work at the youth level has served as a foundation for the higher levels of the sport as changes have taken place at the high school level to ensure safety as well. Along with the “Heads Up” program, the protocol for handling an injury has become a more preventative procedure with a full-time trainer on the sideline that can also spot injuries before they become a major issue.
“If there’s any doubt at all, they don’t go back in,” K-M head football coach Broc Threinen said. “If there’s any type of injury that could cause a further harm to the athlete if they go back in there, it’s just a no-brainer to keep them out and keep them safe.”
MSHSL guidelines have also done their best to make practices a little more than just players running into each other at full speed with stricter guidelines which require two hours between practices, no live action during the first week of the season and cutting down on the impacts and exposures that could create long-term harm.
“We’re able to focus on a lot of skill stuff in that first week,” Donovan explained. “In the long run, that’s a benefit to us.”
Those fundamentals which include leading with the shoulder, seeing the target and bending at the knees and ankles rather than at the waist have also helped to make a motion like tackling safer. Those fundamentals are something that have also been spread down to the youth level.
“The biggest thing is to just rep it and do it correctly for the first time you get to work with the athlete,” Threinen explained. “Our ‘Heads Up’ system is the same from fourth grade up to high school and if you can rep it and turn that into muscle memory, you can teach them to keep their head out of the tackle and it makes it a safer aspect for [the players.]”
The emphasis on safety is one that helps in an attempt to have football continue to grow and make more players and parents feel comfortable to send them out for football.
“I feel good about the work that Terry and the youth program have done at those levels,” Threinen complimented. “They create the atmosphere of having our kids have fun and to have the kids come out the next year. If a kid gets hurt, they’re probably not coming out [the next year], so we want to keep them safe and create a great experience for them.”
“The work that we’re putting in right now puts us at the forefront,” Donovan declared. “The game is safer than it ever has been. You’ll have risk in any sport, but the reward that football sends you out into the world with after being on a team is second to none.”