Technology will have a significant impact on the safety of the Clarinda Cardinals when they buckle up their chinstraps for the 2019 football season.
Football is known as a game of long runs and deep passes, but from time to time the game can also feature big hits. That is why the Cardinals will be sporting new Riddell SpeedFlex helmets equipped with the InSite Training Tool (ITT) to sense impacts that could result in concussions for the players.
“In recent years there has been significant attention paid to contact sports that include higher risk factors for concussion and brain injury. Locally, football is the highest impact sport that is offered. There have been several recent advancements in player techniques and equipment to help reduce, measure, and treat concussions,” Logan Wood, a certified and licensed athletic trainer at Clarinda Regional Health Center, said.
“We want to be proactive versus reactive when it comes to the health and safety of all the kids that are playing football this year,” Greg Jones, Clarinda Regional Health Center Director of Ancillary Services, said.
In addition to the new helmets for players at Clarinda High School, the players at Clarinda Middle School and in the Clarinda Youth Tackle Football program will also be issued Guardian caps for their helmets. The padded caps, which will be worn during practice, fit over the shell of the helmet and compress at the point of impact to reduce the force and help keep the head still.
“They reduce impacts by 25 to 33 percent, which could be really big especially for kids starting at the youth age. Their force isn’t going to be as much, but the repetitiveness can build up,” Wood said.
These safety advancements were made possible by Clarinda Regional Health Center, the Clarinda Booster Club, the Clarinda Youth Tackle Football Club and a private donor. These organizations and individual joined together to purchase the helmets and Guardian caps, at a cost of more than $20,000, and donate them to the Clarinda Community School District.
Wood met with the district Board of Directors Wednesday, Aug. 14, to explain the donation and the safety benefits they provide. After the presentation, the board accepted the donation.
“We’re trying to advance our care for the area athletes by giving them the tools that are able to prevent (injuries) and keep them playing at the level they are at,” Wood said. “You never want to stop putting tools in your toolbox. You are always looking for new tools and new ways of doing things.”
Clarinda Activities Director Josh Porter said the Riddell SpeedFlex helmets are highly rated through independent research and considered to be one of the safest helmets on the market. At the same time, the helmets are affordably priced at $410 apiece compared to a cost of as much as $1,700 for other comparably rated helmets.
The helmets feature specially designed shells, face masks and face mask attachment systems that provide added flexibility to reduce the amount of impact force transferred to the athletes. This includes a horseshoe shaped section of the shell at the front of the helmet specifically designed to distribute blows throughout the helmet.
Porter said Clarinda already had nine new SpeedFlex helmets and has ordered 41 additional helmets for this season. All 50 of those helmets will be equipped with the ITT. The system features five sensors located in the front, back, top and on either side of the helmet to electronically register where an impact occurs and the amount of force involved.
“You know the system is in the helmet, but you can’t tell it’s in there. It is paper thin and they insert it above the pads,” Wood said. “The technology allows you to advance the care you’re providing to the athlete.”
“There may be other schools that have some helmets with the ITT, but I think we’re going to be one of the first to have it for all our helmets,” Porter said. “This sets us apart from other programs as far as the safety and care of our athletes. We want to stand out as role models for other schools, especially in Southwest Iowa.”
Riddell electronically collects the hit data gathered from all the teams nationwide using the ITT to track the force and location of impacts. As a result, the data can identify a threshold above which concussions are most likely to occur.
The actual amount of force involved to exceed the threshold changes as more data is collected. However, once that limit is surpassed, the system issues a warning identifying the player involved and the severity of the impact.
“It will alert me on the sideline through a handheld device if an athlete takes two 95 percentile hits or one 98 percentile hit,” Wood said.
At that point, Wood said he would remove the player from the game and start a concussion evaluation. The results of the evaluation will then determine if, or when, a player can return to action.
“Often concussions are not detected until after the game or the next day. What we’re trying to do is catch it before it gets worse,” Porter said.
“The plain and simple fact that we don’t know if concussions have been a problem or not is a problem,” Jones said.
If a player is believed to have a concussion, Wood said he would immediately implement the return to play protocol set by the Iowa High School Athletic Association. The guidelines involve a six-step process that students have to pass before returning to action. Students must remain symptomatic free for 24 hours before advancing to the next step of the process.
Along with following those guidelines, Clarinda is able to evaluate the cognitive function of the player. At the start of the season players in seventh, ninth and eleventh grade complete a computerized test to establish a baseline reading involving factors like memory and reaction time. Players who suffer potential concussions are then retested to help determine the existence and severity of a concussion.
Wood said he was pleased to find Clarinda has had this computerized testing in place for several years. “I really think they were ahead of a lot of high schools in the area to do that,” he said.
Beyond game day, since the ITT system tracks every hit of every athlete that wore a helmet on a given day, Wood said the system can also be an important coaching tool during practice. If the data reveals a player is routinely receiving impacts to a specific sensor, the individual may be using improper tackling or blocking techniques that could result in injury.
Likewise, if the data shows a specific group of players are receiving higher impacts at a specific time during practice, there may be a problem with the drill involved. This information would allow coaches to adjust the drill to increase the safety of those players.
“Our coaches will be able to evaluate the drills or player’s technique to create a practice that is appropriate,” Porter said.
Although the helmets and Guardian caps cannot fully prevent concussions, they can reduce the potential risk. As a result, Porter is hopeful safety measures like these will ease parent concerns that have led to a declining number of student athletes playing football across the country.
“We are trying to find ways that don’t scare people away from the sport. We have heard of parents not wanting their kids to play because of the safety. So we’re trying to think of ways to take that worry away, but still educating everyone on the topic,” Wood said.
Jones said he has three sons who will be playing football in Clarinda at some level this year. Therefore, he said their safety is his primary concern.
“We might all want to win, but it’s not about overlooking somebody’s safety to get there. To me, this is an assurance as a parent, that your kids are being well cared for,” Jones said.