WELLS — In the battle to try to make football a safer sport, high school coaches are on the front lines.

Many are strictly limiting – and in some cases eliminating – full-contact practices in an effort to reduce injuries, including concussions.

“I have kids who are always mad at me, asking ‘When are we going to hit?’ I tell them we’ll hit on Friday nights,” said Tim Roche, the veteran football coach at Wells High.

“Our biggest thing is trying to find a way to not get a kid hurt. Our training is all about injury prevention. And I think there are a lot of coaches doing the same thing.”

Before the 2015 season, the Maine Principals’ Association established guidelines to restrict full-contact sessions in football practices. Full contact is not allowed in the first four days of preseason practice. In the regular season, schools cannot have more than three full-contact practices per week, limited to 30 minutes per practice. The guidelines are in line with recommendations made by a National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) task force in 2014.

But many coaches in Maine had been taking a proactive approach for years. And several have stricter limits on full contact than prescribed by the MPA.


“Parents are surprised we don’t hit more (in practice),” said Dan Cooper, in his 12th year as Brunswick’s head coach. “I found we’ve been better in games because (players are) healthier and they play more physical and aggressive on Friday night because they’re not banged up.”

Football players are injured more frequently than athletes playing any other high school sport, according to data from the National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance Study for the 2015-16 school year. The survey also found about 44 percent of football injuries take place in practice – and that tackling (or being tackled) is the most frequent cause. Nearly 39 percent of all practice injuries and 66 percent of all football-related concussions occurred during a tackle.

“There’s been such a national focus on concussions. A number of states implemented contact practice rules,” said Mike Burnham, the MPA’s assistant executive director. “Coaches have been very positive and understanding of the need for some of these restrictions.”

Roche started limiting contact at least 10 years ago, but his approach hasn’t meant fewer victories. In his 18th season, Roche has a 119-61 record and his teams are known for their toughness. Wells won a Class B state title in 2011 and is 6-0 this season in Class C South despite its Class D-size enrollment.

“My changing had nothing to do with concussions,” Roche said. “I think it was a knee injury in practice on a hit and I just said, ‘Why are we hitting so much? Now I’ve got a kid down because of something we did in practice.'”

Several of the top football programs in southern Maine take a cautious approach in practices.


Scarborough, Bonny Eagle and Wells never tackle to the ground. Thornton Academy and Brunswick keep full-contact to about a dozen plays a week at the most. Biddeford and Marshwood have a once-a-week 15-minute session with live tackling. Cape Elizabeth has one day with live tackling and one day with live blocking.

“The coaches play a very important role,” said Dr. William Heinz of Portland, who recently served as chair of the NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee. “One of the things that we found is you don’t necessarily need to have a lot of contact drills in order to get youth football players ready for a game.”

Wells senior running back/cornerback Riley Dempsey has become a believer.

“We’re not big numbers-wise, so we need to keep everyone healthy and that’s why we do it,” said Dempsey, referring to a Wells roster of 51 that includes 21 freshmen. “It just gets us more motivated for Friday nights to hit someone else.”

Studies have shown that reducing practice contact can reduce injuries.

A study of Pop Warner youth leagues in 2014, published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, showed that leagues utilizing mandated coaching techniques and limits on full-contact practices had one-seventh of the practice injuries of leagues without contact limits or coaching safety programs.


Wisconsin high schools instituted full-contact practice limits in 2014 similar to those being used in Maine. A University of Wisconsin study showed that the rate of concussions sustained in practices was more than twice as high in the two seasons before the rule change as it was in 2014.

Full contact happens in two practice settings, commonly called thud and live action, Heinz said. Thud features game-like interactions between blockers and defenders.

“In both thud and live action there is no predetermined winner so they’re going pretty hard,” Heinz said. “Thud doesn’t (tackle) to the ground. Live action, that’s basically playing a game.”

Scarborough Coach Lance Johnson doesn’t have his team tackle to the ground in practice at all.

“If you lose a kid (with a concussion) he’s out two weeks, minimum, by the time he goes through the whole process (and is) symptom free,” Johnson said. “So you can’t just be getting after it in practice all the time. You go full speed live, you’re not going to have a team left when it comes time to play the games.”

Full-contact scrimmages and heavy-hitting practice drills were once considered essential in football practices. No hitting meant no toughness.


Few drills are more emblematic of this approach than the Oklahoma drill. It features two linemen going head-to-head in a narrow defined space. A running back runs full speed into the fray, often resulting in a second high-speed collision.

“All of us coaches have played,” Roche said. “We remember the Oklahoma drill. You would dread that day.”

Other coaches believe full-contact drills still have value – in moderation.

This fall, Marshwood Coach Alex Rotsko is using a variation of the Oklahoma drill, which he calls one-on-ones. Rotsko said early in the season his team struggled to finish blocks and lacked intensity in games.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Rotsko said. “You don’t want somebody to get hurt on a Tuesday or Wednesday. We do one-on-ones on Tuesday for about 15 minutes and it’s the only full live drill we do. But we don’t put the back to the ground.”

Coaches also are cognizant that too much full-contact work can discourage younger players, who are less physically mature.


“We may do a drill session here or there where we might go 12 plays but not a lot. Not like we used to. Save it for the game,” said Thornton Academy Coach Kevin Kezal. “Number one, you don’t want to lose any players in practice and, number two, you don’t want to lose those younger kids that are so valuable to your program.”

Kezal and Greely Coach Dave Higgins said their teams use tackling mats – essentially a smaller, flatter high jump pit – when they want to practice and teach tackling at full speed. The mat significantly lessens the impact with the ground.

Cape Elizabeth Coach Aaron Filieo and his staff teach rugby-style tackling where the tackler aims low, hits with the shoulder, and tries to “wrap and roll across the legs.”

“We tackle. If we can’t tackle in practice we can’t tackle in the game. We found that out a couple years ago,” Filieo said. “We tackle once a week and we block live once a week and that’s pretty much it.”

Eliminating full contact does not mean eliminating all contact.

At a recent practice, Roche pointed across the field where his players were practicing tackling. Running at three-quarters speed, the ball carrier made a cut and the tackler tried to wrap him up with his arms and push him back or sideways. The drill’s focus is to train the tackler to get his head to the side of the ball carrier’s torso. The play is stopped before either player hits the ground.


“We do this kind of drill every day and you see (the form) get better and better,” Roche said. “We’re always saying ‘Get the head out, get your hat out.’ Fifteen years ago we would have been saying, put the hat on the ball. Fifteen years ago you would have seen everyone going down to the ground.”

“I think it is beneficial because it does limit injuries,” said Sean McCormack-Kuhman, Wells’ starting center and middle linebacker. “We also work a lot on form tackling and stuff like that so when we get into games we can tackle right and prevent injuries in the game as well. That’s what it’s really about: preventing injuries in games and in practices.”

Several studies have indicated that repetitive non-concussive blows – the type routinely absorbed by linemen in full-contact situations – can play a role in potential long-term effects of multiple or even a single concussion, Heinz said.

That’s one of the key messages all high school football coaches in Maine, including assistant and volunteer coaches, hear when they complete the required watching of the video “Concussion in Sport,” which features Heinz as the presenter and is available from the NFHS website. Maine’s high school football coaches are also required to view the most recent version of NFHS videos “A Guide to Heat Illness,” and “Sudden Cardiac Arrest.”

Heinz said the benefits of football – including physical activity, discipline, leadership and teamwork – far outweigh the risks.

“I am not a proponent of banning football,” he said. “If we can make it safer, it’s going to be all the better.”

Players are all for that.

“I think it’s more about mental toughness now,” McCormack-Kuhman said. “Just because you don’t hit every day doesn’t mean you can’t be a tough guy. You can base that on your performance in games.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: