High School Sports

Youth football contact practice limits imposed

Arroyo Grande’s Michael Jordano, left, tries to get past host Paso Robles’ Luis Alvarado on Nov. 1.
Arroyo Grande’s Michael Jordano, left, tries to get past host Paso Robles’ Luis Alvarado on Nov. 1. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

A new law signed Monday by Gov. Jerry Brown will further restrict the length and frequency of full-contact football practices at the high school and middle school levels in a continued nationwide effort to reduce concussions and other head-related injuries in the sport.

The restrictions outlined by Assembly Bill 2127 are: Full-contact practices can be held only twice a week during the regular season and preseason, and they cannot exceed 90 minutes on a single day. In addition, full-contact practices in the offseason are prohibited.

Central Coast varsity coaches said they are on board with trying to limit the amount of potentially dangerous collisions, although the interpretation, implementation and enforcement of AB-2127 will have to be ironed out prior to it going into effect Jan. 1.

“Honestly, there’s no way to simulate live tackling other than tackling,” said Arroyo Grande High coach Tom Goossen, who supports the new rules because “it’s about doing the right thing.”

“Practice is a controlled environment, not like in a game, which is full speed,” continued Goossen, who said the Eagles already comply with the twice-a-week provision and that the team hasn’t run an entire full-contact practice in six years. “Whatever precautions we can take, I’m for it.”

Rather than running scrimmages or team drills with the same hitting and speed seen on game day, most coaches tell their players to go at “thud tempo” in an effort to avoid injury and best recreate full-go scenarios.

Thudding is when two linemen engage at the snap of a ball or a defender will wrap up a ball carrier, but the point of impact is muted instantly, and nobody is driven into the ground.

“You’re practicing all your same fundamentals and pursuit angles … but you wouldn’t lower your shoulder and go for those hard extra yards like you would in a game,” first-year San Luis Obispo coach and former Cal Poly quarterback Pat Johnston said. “Because when you have guys go all the way, that’s when everyone goes to the ground and someone can get hurt.

“Thud tempo gets you as close to a game simulation as you can get.”

Still, coaches said it’s necessary to have some live-action hitting in practice because it shows them who is prepared and experienced enough to play once intensity is ratcheted up in a real game.

“My biggest fear is with my younger kids; how can you teach someone to tackle if you can’t tackle?” Mission Prep’s Chad Henry said. “Most of our head injuries came in the game, and you have a kid that’s never played running down on a kickoff, not looking, and some guy smashes them. There’s a lack of experience there.

“We usually have five minutes in a day with live contact competition. It’s something you need to have.”

Assemblyman Ken Cooley (D-Rancho Cordova) first introduced AB-2127 on Feb. 20. After two amendments, the bill passed through the Assembly on May 15 and the Senate on June 19 before getting the final stamp of approval by Gov. Brown on Monday.

“AB 2127’s practice guidelines will reassure parents that their kids can learn football safely through three hours of full-contact practice … to maximize conditioning and skill development while minimizing concussion risk,” Cooley told the Los Angeles Times.

Henry said he is opposed to AB-2127 in part because its terminology and explanations are vague.

Section 2 of the law defines a full-contact practice as “a practice where drills or live action is conducted that involves collisions at game speed, where players execute tackles and other activity that is typical of an actual tackle football game.”

“How do they interpret thud tempo?” Henry said. “I’d be in agreement if there was some more universal language about what kind of contact is allowed, but it’s getting to the point where we are so limited in practices and how we can do it that our kids are not in game shape.”

It all comes back to concussions and what can be done to lessen their occurrence — like the 2012 law mandating concussion training for coaches and the current CIF concussion protocol. The rule, which was written four years ago, demands a player showing any concussion-related symptom must leave the field of play — be it practice or game — and cannot return until cleared by a medical professional.

The majority of San Luis Obispo County teams have partnered with San Luis Sports Therapy and its ImPACT Concussion Testing since 2009 as a way to educate players on the dangers of shrugging off concussions and warning signs.

“The Central Coast does a great job being educated and researching concussion protocol,” Henry said. “I feel comfortable when our kids do get hurt because of that … but for as long as there have been athletics, there have been injuries.”

A team’s 25-practice preseason is also subject to the new rules under AB-2127, meaning less than half of the practices leading up to the season-opening game can be full contact.

Southern Section guidelines already outlaw full-contact practices during the offseason, although they were permissible in other sections. The statewide ban makes California the 20th state to fully do away with hitting in the spring and summer.

“I think coaches are listening and paying more attention to players to make sure they are not running them into the ground,” Templeton’s Dan Loney said. “Those days are gone, and now it’s about getting quality in your repetitions instead of quantity.”

Coaches are also still working to comply with other CIF restrictions going into effect this season, which ban back-to-back two-a-day practices and put a weekly cap of 18 hours on all football-related activities.

Those activities include everything from actual games and practices to film sessions and weight training, including team-run study halls.

“The 18-hour one is going to be hard,” Loney said. “As a smaller school, we don’t have a weight-lifting class during the school day, so that cuts into our practice time if we want to weight train.”

Johnston said he’ll have to make some tweaks to his practice schedules and workout regimens to adhere to all the new regulations, but that’s what comes with being a football coach.

“You’ve got to coach great tackling without those live reps,” he said. “Those are the challenges we’re starting to face all over with the new defenseless player rules and these. Coaches have to adapt and still find a way to get that good teaching in.”

An NFL-funded report in 2013 by a panel of medical experts brought together by the National Academy of Sciences found that high school football players across the country suffered 11.2 concussions per 10,000 athletic exposures — meaning a practice or game — from 2010 to 2012. The next highest was girls soccer at 6.7, and college football came in at a rate of 6.3.

Football is not the only interscholastic sport that leads to concussions, and live games will continue to carry the greatest risk. 

AB-2127 aims to lower the chance of head-related injuries during practice while still affording teams 180 hours per week to go full tilt.

“I’ve been doing this over 40 years,” Goossen said. “It’s a different world than when I first started, but I’m not sure this new world is a bad thing.”