Youth Sports Safety: Helmets

Parents of youth athletes need to remain vigilant about safety precautions for sport-related concussions.

By Susan Yeargin, PhD, ATC

The COVID-19 pandemic may be the front-page news, but parents of youth athletes need to remain vigilant about safety precautions for sport-related concussions. This is particularly true as young athletes are returning to the field and injury prevention and management remain critical among youth football players in particular. Indeed, a study published in JAMA Pediatrics (one of the nation’s leading medical journals) found that concussion rates at the youth level are as high as rates in high school and college players. This means concussion prevention can’t wait until high school.

Youth tackle football across the country varies by recreational leagues and club teams. Yet, no single overarching organization provides universal recommendations at this competitive level and many youth league teams do not have formal health care service personnel on-site, such as the athletic trainer.

Efforts to prevent sport-related concussion in youth tackle football players should always be on the forefront of parents’, coaches’, and administrators’ minds. Risk-reducing factors include ensuring appropriate tackling techniques, improving neck strength, use of mouth guards, and proper fitting helmets among other considerations.

American football helmets range in types, models, sizes, and hardware. As a result, helmet fitting requires education and training—meaning personnel fitting helmets need to be properly trained in how to fit each brand of helmet. Preliminary research examining differences in helmet models’ capability to reduce sport-related concussion risk has produced a wide variety of results. While helmets cannot prevent sport-related concussions, they may help reduce forces transmitted to the brain if fitted properly. If not properly fitted and serviced, the effectiveness of the helmet may be reduced.

As a parent, one of my first questions for my coach/league is, who is responsible for the health and safety of my child? The Helmet Safety Checklist should not be in lieu of a trained healthcare professional doing these checks and fittings.

In light of this helmet fit advice, researchers at the University of South Carolina conducted a study with more than 200 youth (7-12 years-olds) tackle football players in a recreation league. Initial results show the majority (83%) of helmets were rented by players from the league and the league was in charge of providing and fitting their helmets correctly.

Helmet Safety Checklist
  1. The helmet appears in good condition after all-around inspection, with no cracks or dents.
  2. The helmet appears in good condition after all-around inspection, with no cracks or dents.
  3. All padding is in place
  4. All snaps and screws are in place
  5. NOCSAE (National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment) football helmet and sticker/logo is visible
  6. Helmet fits snugly on all sides
  7. Helmet covers the base of the skull
  8. Crown of the helmet is 1 to 2 fingers above eyebrows
  9. Helmet does not impinge neck movement
  10. Helmet does not cover eyes when pressing down
  11. Chin straps have equal tension
  12. Facemask does not slip when pulled left to right
  13. Facemask does not slip when pulled up and down
  14. Skin on forehead moves with helmet front to back and left to right movement.

Of the helmets examined, 5% had expired. (The National Athletic Equipment Reconditioners Association [NAERA] states that football helmets must be reconditioned and recertified every two to ten years.) Additionally, the majority (74%) of the helmets did not meet at least one component of the 13 criteria researchers used to measure helmet fit and were therefore considered improperly fit. The most common factors were

  • lack of snugness on all sides,
  • crown of helmet was not 1-2 fingers above the eyebrows,
  • facemask slipped up and down, and
  • the chinstrap was not taught.

Building parent and coach relationships before the season begins is important. Coaches should set-up a session before the first full contact practice in which helmet distribution and fitting is managed by a healthcare professional; a separate session allows for proper fitting while not being rushed.

Parents can be supportive of such a session and offer help with stations and staggered player arrival. During the season, parents can help recognize a helmet is not fitting appropriately (getting a haircut can alter the fit) while watching practice and games and should feel comfortable notifying the coach or athletic trainer to help with determining what factor(s) may need to be addressed.

With a collaborative approach in place, and good communication among parents, coaches, administrators and health professionals in youth league and recreational football, the incidence of sport-related concussions can potentially be reduced. Reducing risk factors helps ensure young athletes can excel on the field.

Susan Yeargin, PhD, ATC, is Associate Professor of Athletic Training in the Exercise Science Department of University of South Carolina, a member of the Korey Stringer Institute Medical and Science Advisory Board, and the parent of a youth athlete.

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