Some Connecticut teams are taking steps in practice to limit injuries
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.