The University of New Hampshire Wildcats are heading into a do-or-die quarterfinal football game this week against the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga.
And whether they win or not, there’s one thing you can say about the Wildcats: They are likely the only football team in America trying to reduce concussions by practicing without helmets.
Football has a concussion problem, from the National Football League down to Pee-Wee teams. And there are lots of efforts out there to fix it.
But Erik Swartz, a University of New Hampshire professor of kinesiology, studies movement and says there has been very little discussion about getting to the root of the problem: technique. Instead of clashing helmet-first, as football players often do, the better approach is to keep the head up and tackle chest to chest, never leading with your helmet — or your face, neck or shoulders.
Swartz says his idea to experiment with having players drill without helmets came from his own time playing rugby.
“You keep your head out of the way in a tackle in rugby,” he says. “Because it’s not protected, it will hurt.”
Swartz’s ongoing study divides the team into two 25-player groups. The control group always practices with a helmet on, while the treatment group takes helmets off during a tackling drill.
Before practice, every player has a sensor placed behind the ear to gauge and relay the force and number of impacts to the head. Swartz and his team watch to see if and how that changes over the course of the season for each player.
During full-speed tackling, the idea is to “look up when you tackle, to see what you’re hitting,” says Wildcats running back Donald Goodrich, who is part of the group that does the drill without helmets.
“It becomes second nature if you do it enough in practice,” Goodrich says.
After that short, intense drill, the helmets go back on.
The hope is that players who think more about their skulls during a game will suffer less head trauma over time.
Wildcats head coach Sean McDonnell says this study, or something else, has to work.
“I’m responsible, and our coaches are responsible, for these kids’ safety,” McDonnell says. “If we don’t take care of this, it could be the end of football.”
The NFL is paying attention. The pro football league, GE and the sports clothing firm Under Armour have together funded Swartz’s work with a $500,000 grant.
Nineteen of the 20 researchers given similar grants to tackle the concussion problem are making things like stronger helmets, softer turf and better concussion diagnostics. Only Swartz is trying to change basic human behavior. He thinks his approach could work.
“If you look on the sidelines, let’s say, after there’s a touchdown in football, oftentimes the players will head-butt themselves to celebrate,” Swartz points out. “They probably wouldn’t do that if they didn’t have a helmet on.”
The Wildcats research will continue into next year, when Swartz says he also plans to expand the study into three high schools.