This story was corrected at 1:05 p.m. July 2, 2013.
Though it dominates the country’s airwaves like no other game, some people view football as an endangered sport. Mounting scrutiny concerning the lasting impact of concussions has thrown the National Football League into a ceaseless pot of controversy, calling into question the long-term stability of a game that risks the health of everyone playing it.
Fairfax County has emerged near the forefront of a recent movement to preserve and enhance the game of football through improved instruction at the youth level. Last year, local coaches fell in step with Heads Up Football, a national youth program aimed at improving tackling techniques to foster a safer game. This summer, they’re setting the tone for the rest of country by making sure every coach in the area is intimately familiar with the correct ways to teach their kids about the sport’s most critical fundamentals.
After becoming one of three districts across the country to run pilot programs with Heads Up last summer, Fairfax County Public Schools distinguished itself this summer as the first district to make Heads Up training mandatory for all of its high school football coaches. Centreville High varsity coach Chris Haddock and former Annandale High coach Dick Adams have led the charge, running clinics throughout the summer to teach local coaches proper methods of ingraining sound tackling techniques that keep the head out of play.
The Heads Up program is an initiative of USA Football, the national governing body of American football at the youth and amateur levels. An independent nonprofit supported by the NFL, USA Football created Heads Up to encourage proper instruction of safe techniques at the grassroots level and ease concerns of parents hesitant about the game’s inherent risks.
Haddock and Adams completed a nationally accredited certification program at USA Football headquarters in Indianapolis to become USA Football Master Trainers. They are now making sure that every high school in the Northern Region has at least one player safety coach who will take what they’ve learned in coaches’ training clinics to the rest of the coaches at their respective schools.
“I think number one, it’s going to make football safer for kids that are playing it,” Haddock said. “We have a lot of smart people in the world, but we haven’t come up with a helmet that stops concussions, and we haven’t come up with shoulder pads that stop shoulder injuries. So we have to develop fundamentals and techniques that are safer. I think this program achieves that.”
Haddock led a Player Safety Clinic for about 50 Northern Region coaches on June 1, then another one a week later at Centreville High School for over 30 youth coaches from around the state. The clinics focused mostly on concussion awareness and tackling training, while also touching on helmet and shoulder pad fitting. Coaches took the field to practice the same drills they will be using with their players, making sure to keep their eyes up so that their heads don’t lead into tackles.
“In the clinic we actually did the drill, so we know what to expect the kids to do,” said Tim DiVecchia, a youth coach in his seventh year coaching SYA football. “A lot of times we’ll just sit there and look at a chalkboard and videos and diagrams, but this was immersive. You put the coaches in the drills and point out things to know what to look for.”
According to DiVecchia, the key to the whole program is the establishment of a consistent instructional framework that will keep players and coaches across all teams on the same page going forward. In the past, kids have gone from one coach to the next and been forced to learn new terminology along the way. The mixture of different techniques and terminology can create confusion for young players and lead to inconsistencies that only worsen over time.
Going into year two of his involvement with Heads Up, DiVecchia hopes that the techniques he’s teaching will become second nature to his players.
“Some of the kids last year were new, but it wasn’t like they were thinking. They knew what they had to do,” DiVecchia said. “Whether their bodies would respond or not was just a matter of how much practice they got. Going into our second year here at SYA, we expect a lot of our kids to come in already knowing all the terminology, and they should be that much farther ahead having that extra year.”
Coaches like DiVecchia, Haddock and Adams have also spent time reaching out to parents to educate them about the safety benefits of Heads Up. Haddock makes a point of dispelling misinformation about football’s dangers, saying that the highest rate of concussions in youth sports actually occurs in girls soccer and that the highest rate of concussions in the U.S. stems from bike accidents, not football injuries.
“What’s a key element as well is that there are parents who sit in the stands who really don’t know a whole lot about football,” Haddock said. “I think involving parents with what’s going on in this program is a key element to allaying a lot of concerns and to ensure that people really feel comfortable not only with the fundamentals and all the different techniques, but that their coaches know what they’re doing. That gives great peace of mind to a lot of parents that may not know a whole lot about it.”
Haddock, who was prevented by his parents from participating in youth football in the 1970’s due to a lack of trust in inexperienced coaches, believes that programs like Heads Up will combine with advancements in sports medicine to keep football from going away anytime soon.
“I want to see football perpetuate and continue and flourish, and I think this program is going to be a big part of that,” he said.
Correction: The original version of this article included the wrong name of the certification training program Chris Haddock and Dick Adams completed.