Ty Swenson
West Seattle Youth Football and Cheer Director DeShawn Carter talks with a player during practice on Oct. 2. Carter's youth program is teaching new tackling techniques and keeping a closer eye on concussions in response to increased scrutiny over the dangers of repeated hits to the head in football.

Youth football and avoiding concussions: Teaching a new way to hit in West Seattle

There was a time, not so long ago, when the crack of football players’ helmets colliding - as tackler and ball carrier came together - was cause for celebration.

“Great hit!” we would've cheered. “That’ll build character,” a coach might have quipped.

In the past few years things have changed dramatically, as the dangers of repeated concussions and the long-term brain injuries that can result from those hits have become something closer scientific consensus rather than research the NFL allegedly shunned as fringe for decades.

In late August the NFL agreed to pay a $765 million settlement to 4,500 ex-players and their families for health and behavioral problems resulting from repeated hits. On Oct. 8, two investigative reporters will release their book, League of Denial, which claims the NFL intentionally downplayed the dangers of concussions for many years. PBS Frontline will air their documentary by the same name on the 8th as well.

As a result of increased scrutiny, rules and coaching changes have been made from top to bottom. At the NFL level, rules have been implemented to keep defenders from leading with their helmets as they go in for a tackle. As any football fan can attest, it’s been a difficult learning curve for some pros as they’ve been forced to hit the big red reset button on how to approach their craft. Flags are flying as a result.

Here in West Seattle, you can see the changes at the opposite end of the spectrum where, three times a week during practice and during games on Saturdays, the next generation of football players are learning a whole new way to tackle, and coaches are relearning how to teach the game.

Youngsters here are mostly playing in the West Seattle Junior Football and Cheer (WSJFC) program, and we sat down for an interview with Director Deshawn Carter to talk about changes being implemented with his coaches and kids to reduce the concussion risk in one of America’s favorite sports.

Carter has been teaching youth sports for 15 years and started up the WSJFC program in 2008 for players ranging in age from 6 to 14. He grew up in Rainier Beach, works in the recycling industry, and said he can think of no better way to spend his evenings than teaching the game he loves to the next generation.

“Coaching has changed a lot,” Carter said. “Back when we were growing up you’d do the ram drill. Fifteen yards back and smack!”

Today, he said every coach in the league (which is part of the Northwest Junior Football League) has to go through USA Football (the national governing body of youth football) certification, where they learn how to teach new tackling techniques, helmet fitting, and the warning signs of a concussion.

The new tackling procedure they promote is called “Heads Up,” which Carter said “changes the mentality of what coaches think, on what they’ve been taught. We are no longer wrapping up, we are ripping. The terminology and techniques have changed to get the head out of the equation.”

According to USA Football, head up tackling using the rip method involves keeping the head up as a defender comes in for a tackle. Instead of the traditional wrap tackle, where a defender buries their head into the opposing player, wraps their arms around and brings the player down, they now keep the head up, bring the arms in and up like “double uppercuts” and “rip” the opposing player up, and then down.

“It’s going to benefit in years to come,” Carter said. “Everyone is getting taught the same language (at the youth level). At the kids get older then we will really see the effects on the new teaching, how football is now being taught.”

“These kids are pioneers of what will become the modern-day NFL,” he said.

Carter said his coaches employ far more “shadow” drills than they used to, where kids go through the motions of a proper tackle at 20, 50 and 75 percent instead of going all out. “We really showcase the technique … at such a low speed that it ingrains in the kids how to do it properly.”

As for keeping an eye out for concussions, Carter said beyond knowing the standard warning signs and going through basic cognitive tests after a significant hit to the head, a new role for coaches is really getting to know the personality of their athletes.

“The relationship between coach and kid has to be a good one because you know if little Tommy is a jitterbug most of the time and then he takes a whack and he’s on the sideline and acting like he’s on a downer or something, something is different, something is wrong,” he explained.

Despite the negative press football has received in recent years, Carter said enrollment as WSYFC continues to grow, including a 15 percent growth for this current season.

“I think it’s due to us just really talking about Heads Up and talking about safety and our coaches’ techniques, but the parents are definitely leery at first,” he said. “When they come in there are so many more questions that are being asked which, in my opinion, is better for the game because the more informed parents are, the more they’ll want their kids to play because they know the steps that we go through.”

Carter said while it’s important to teach young football players the new tackling technique, he believes the concussion risks at youth and junior high levels are not as high as high school, college and the pros where players get increasingly stronger and play at a faster pace.

“A concussion on this level doesn't compare to a concussion on the NFL level,” he said, echoing a common believe among coaches we talked to.

As football fans across Seattle are in a rightful frenzy over their Seahawk’s performance so far and a highly plausible Super Bowl run, the safety conversation will continue as more research results come in.

In late September, for example, the New York Times reported on a recent Virginia Tech-Wake Forest study that, while limited in scope, found “football players as young as 7 sustain hits to the head comparable in magnitude to those absorbed by high school and adult players.”

“There is a crying need for more research,” Jon Butler, executive director of Pop Warner youth football, said when shown the study. “There has been a lot of misinformation handed out.”

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