Non-con­tact foot­ball

Some Con­necti­cut teams are tak­ing steps in prac­tice to limit in­juries

Hartford Courant (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Shawn McFar­land sm­c­far­[email protected]

Some state high schools are cut­ting back on con­tact in prac­tice to limit in­juries.

Grow­ing con­cerns about con­cus­sions and other in­juries suf­fered in foot­ball have re­sulted in sev­eral changes in the way the game is played in the NFL, col­lege and even high schools. But while the rate at which con­cus­sions are suf­fered in prac­tice is down, the per­cent­age re­mains high in high school pro­grams across the coun­try.

Re­search from the Datalys Cen­ter for Sports In­jury Re­search and Pre­ven­tion shows that only 3 per­cent of con­cus­sions in NFL play­ers are suf­fered dur­ing prac­tice. That num­ber is dra­mat­i­cally higher — 58 per­cent — in high schools. But a hand­ful of high school foot­ball pro­grams in Con­necti­cut are work­ing to limit head in­juries and other types of in­juries. For RHAM High School in He­bron, the ef­forts are pay­ing off.

RHAM made it deep into its foot­ball sea­son able to avoid many sig­nif­i­cant in­juries, which head coach Robert Ru­bin at­tributes to his prac­tice meth­ods. Un­like many teams around that state that prac­tice tack­ling and run drills through­out the sea­son — some even em­pha­siz­ing tack­ling — Ru­bin doesn’t al­low con­tact in his prac­tices.

“Killing each other in prac­tice doesn’t help you for Satur­day. I don’t need my guy try­ing to nail my start­ing run­ning back,” Ru­bin said. “How does that help him for Satur­day?”

The team wears hel­mets and shoul­der pads at prac­tice. There are no leg pads, with most play­ers wear­ing shorts or sweat­pants. There are no stom­ach pads or rib pro­tec­tors. While most teams would prac­tice like that on a light work­out day, this is what RHAM wears ev­ery day.

When it comes to tack­ling, the play­ers don’t ac­tu­ally make con­tact with one an­other. In­stead, the RHAM Sachems prac­tice their tack­ling on sleds, bags, or slowed down drills to get the tech­nique right. It’s noth­ing new in He­bron, or for Ru­bin, who’s been coach­ing this way since he be­came a head coach seven years ago. He doesn’t think he’s rein­vent­ing the wheel, ei­ther.

Lim­ited con­tact in prac­tice is a con­cept that has spread. Man­ches­ter head coach Roy Roberts has been do­ing it for years and New Canaan is among the teams that limit tack­ling dur­ing the team’s spring game.

The Ivy League has al­ready en­forced a no-tackle rule for reg­u­lar sea­son prac­tices. Dart­mouth took it a step fur­ther, and cre­ated a self-im­posed tackle ban for pre­sea­son prac­tices as well. Un­sur­pris­ingly, the in­jury rate has dropped. The same can be said for RHAM.

“We’re do­ing ev­ery­thing they’re do­ing, we’re just do­ing it with no­body ever go­ing to the ground,” Ru­bin said of the tra­di­tional prac­tice meth­ods. “Most of your coaches, if you go around, have a sim­i­lar phi­los­o­phy, maybe with more pads.”

“Very rarely do you see any­body go down to the ground in prac­tice. I’m in the adage where I think most con­cus­sions in foot­ball oc­cur,” Ru­bin said, stomp­ing his foot on the grass, “when the head hits the ground.”

Dr. David Wang, the clin­i­cal di­rec­tor of elite sports medicine at Con­necti­cut Chil­dren’s Med­i­cal Cen­ter still has con­cerns, but see­ing coaches and teams take safety one step fur­ther than the CIAC, which has steadily less­ened the al­lot­ted min­utes for weekly con­tact in prac­tice year af­ter year, is a pos­i­tive step.

“You can look at it from two dif­fer­ent an­gles,” Wang said. “What we do know is that if you re­duce the ex­po­sure to risk and trauma, you will have less in­jury. We all agree that de­creas­ing ex­po­sure de­creases risk. That is pretty in­tu­itive, that does make sense.”

Wang brought up an­other cau­tion. If play­ers don’t prop­erly prac­tice tack­ling, then there’s a risk of in­jury on that end as well, in games, scrim­mages and so on. Over at RHAM, how­ever, they’ve found a way to per­fect their tack­ling tech­nique all the while lay­ing off each other.

Dur­ing stretch­ing ex­er­cises, play­ers will sit on their knees with their arms spread out, while other play­ers es­sen­tially hug them to sim­u­late wrap­ping up. For full speed tack­ling, Ru­bin lets his play­ers loose on the sled ma­chines, which are specif­i­cally de­signed to be hit and taken to the ground. They do a hawk roll drill with pads, too, to prac­tice pur­suit and proper rolling.

“It’s a ma­jor dif­fer­ence,” RHAM se­nior Dy­lan Deper­sia said. “When you fo­cus on form and tech­nique, you know where you’re sup­posed to be, how you’re sup­posed to tackle. When it comes to the game, you’re not think­ing about it. By then, you know what your form tackle is sup­posed to be like. We’re a lot more pre­pared for these games.”

In ad­di­tion to the added em­pha­sis on tech­nique and strat­egy, RHAM play­ers spend a lot of time watch­ing film. They tape their own prac­tices, and break down what went right and wrong. They re­li­giously watch other team’s film, too, and have en­listed the help of Go Route, a high-tech tool which the Sachems use as a scout­ing tool. Ru­bin cred­its it for help­ing them con­sume thou­sands of scout reps.

Harry Bel­lucci, who coaches at Hart­ford Pub­lic, runs prac­tices sim­i­larly. Dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son, there’s no live tack­ling in prac­tice, only form tack­ling. Bel­lucci, who’s coached for over 38 years, comes from an era where each prac­tice would be full speed, live con­tact, Mon­day through Thurs­day.

“With the num­bers in foot­ball still on the de­crease in a lot of pro­grams, you can’t have your first-string guard and your first-string re­ceiver go­ing down in live prac­tice,” he said.

Wang added that tak­ing ac­tion is a far bet­ter ap­proach than stand­ing idle.

“I’m glad that peo­ple are tak­ing ac­tion, and try­ing to mit­i­gate their risk,” Wang said. “You de­crease ex­po­sure, you de­crease risk.”


RHAM head coach Robert Ru­bin doesn’t al­low con­tact in his prac­tices. Play­ers prac­tice their tack­ling on sleds, bags or slowed-down drills.

RHAM made it deep into the sea­son with­out many sig­nif­i­cant in­juries, which Ru­bin at­tributes to his prac­tice meth­ods.

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