Helmets: Don’t Offer Protection If They Don’t Fit Properly

By Doug Williams 

Checking” isn’t permitted in youth hockey, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t contact. Hockey, after all, is a collision sport.

Kids skating full speed while chasing the puck can trip and hit the ice hard. They can fly into the boards, be slapped with a stick, take a puck to the head, slam into a goal or be illegally checked. It’s why players wear pads and helmets.

Helmets, however, must fit properly to work, and there’s evidence that many boys and girls in the sport are wearing improperly fitted headgear.

A study presented at the annual meeting of the National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA) found just 11 of 50 helmets worn by players in a youth hockey league in Massachusetts were properly fitted. The findings support a 2014 study published in Orthopedics that found only 30% of youth hockey players and 38% of lacrosse players had properly fitted helmets.

To Julia Lovely, a certified athletic trainer (ATC), the lead author of the NATA study, the findings are a warning light for parents. Lovely, a graduate teaching fellow at Springfield College in Massachusetts who works with the women’s soccer and softball teams, says a properly fitted helmet can help prevent skull and facial fractures.

Lovely said improper helmet fit is likely in similar percentages in youth football and lacrosse, because at the youth level there are few available experts to ensure fit.

“There are no athletic trainers or equipment managers to know how these helmets are supposed to fit, so even if parents think they are sending their children out with helmets that are fitted properly – they seem to look OK – they still could be fitted improperly,” she said.

Bart Peterson, MS, ATC, and chairman of the NATA Secondary School Committee, agreed with Lovely. In his work at Palo Verde High School in Tucson, Ariz., he’s seen examples of ill-fitting helmets in area youth football.

“From a distance, you can tell the helmet doesn’t fit,” he said. “It’s wobbling around, almost like a bobblehead.”

Peterson and Lovely recommend parents discuss the importance of fit with their children and ask about comfort and snugness. Adjustments to pads and straps can make a big difference. Lovely suggests parents consult with an athletic trainer, if possible, about fit. She also cited a checklist, referenced in the Orthopedics study, that the authors of that study used to check helmet fit.

Among the key points parents can check:

  • A helmet should be snug. Grab the helmet and move it from side to side. The head should move with the helmet.
  • The helmet should cover the base of the skull in back.
  • Straps should be snapped and tight.
  • Ears should be visible through the ear holes.
  • There should be a two-finger width between the top of the eyebrow and the helmet.

Lovely and Peterson suggest, too, that parents check helmet fit every season. A helmet that fits one year, they said, won’t necessarily fit the next year.

Doug Williams is a freelance writer and former newspaper editor and reporter. He has covered three Olympics and has written for ESPN, NFL.com, Competitor magazine and the U.S. Olympic website. He also is the author of 10 non-fiction books for young readers. He lives in San Diego.

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