Youth football league tackles concussion prevention

Peninsula Youth Football is taking necessary steps to address player safety

Staff writerJune 25, 2014 

“When in doubt, sit him out.”

The slogan encapsulates the heightened level of cautiousness surrounding concussions in youth football. The Peninsula Youth Football organization is fully aware of the concussion management conversation taking place in this country, and is doing what it can to get in front of the issue.

Scott Zeitner, the chairman of the PYF, and Clem Hong, a youth football coach and member of the board, named Paul Baker the player safety coach last year. Baker is a nurse practitioner at Franciscan Medical Center in Port Orchard.

The PYF, which is made up of players in third through the eighth grade, has fully adopted USA football’s guidelines for not only concussions, but other injuries as well. The focus has been on awareness and education for administrators, coaches, parents and players.

“We’re not trying to turn our coaches into providers, but we’re going to make them aware of symptoms,” Baker said. “Ultimately, parents need to recognize the same things.”

To make the game safer, all PYF coaches have to take an injury management test to earn a certification from USA football. But recognizing the treatment of concussions isn’t enough—the ultimate aim is to make them occur less frequently by changing the fundamentals of how the game is played. The emphasis is being shifted from head-on tackling to “Heads Up” football.

“We’re doing things very differently; the head is always up to protect the spine and head,” Hong said.

And the brain. The recent reports of former NFL players suffering from depression and other brain-related injuries has caused a trickle-down effect at the youth level: PYF’s participation numbers have dipped over the past decade. Simply put, a lot of parents don’t want their kids anywhere near a sport that has a less-than-stellar reputation of safety—glorifying big hits and helmet-to-helmet blows. The effort to make the game safer is a necessary and overdue response to those concerns.

The PYF now tracks every injury for each player over the season with an app called InjuryFREE. Coaches have the app on their mobile devices, and have access to the full roster. When they’re on the sidelines, they can use the app to easily report an injury. The injury reports are then funneled to Baker. In the case of concussions, if a player is even suspected of having one, that player is out until they’ve been medically evaluated.

The app also allows coaches to track the progress of the player’s return. The player has to go through five steps, beginning with light physical activity, before they’re cleared to play. The fifth step, returning to play, means the concussion symptoms have completely cleared. If at any point symptoms reoccur during any of the five steps, the player must go back to step one.

The next step for the PYF is to expand the concussion guidelines to the various health care providers in the community.

Too often, doctors and physicians clear players for full contact before they’re ready to come back, Baker said.

“We want everyone to make sure they’re following the same guidelines,” Baker said. “I’d like to see the medical community all certified and understanding management.”

There isn’t a universal set of guidelines for concussion management as of right now, and it’s unlikely to come from administrations anytime soon. Baker wants to spread awareness from the bottom up, raising awareness at a grassroots level.

Baker said the Neurology Department at St. Anthony’s Hospital is on board, and he expects other medical providers in the area to be receptive to the change as well.

“Our ultimate goal is to make sure our players are returning to play safely,” Baker said. “I think they’ll understand this is good change.”

After seeing a 12 percent dip in participation two years ago, numbers bounced back last year. League officials hope that as parents see their commitment to safety, participation remains steady. In addition to raising awareness, the PYF is doing its part to make sure its teams use the safest and highest-rated equipment available. Helmets are certified every year, and pads are certified every other year.

“It’s very important to us to have quality equipment,” Zeitner said.

Last year was the first year the league fully adopted the Heads Up football program. This year, it’ll continue.

“We’re all in again,” Zeitner said. “This is the way.”

Jon Manley: 253-358-4151 Twitter: @gateway_jon

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