As evidence of the dangers of repeated head trauma mounts, experts turn to St. John’s University head football coach John Gagliardi for an example of how to limit the risks of harsh contact.
Dr. Robert Cantu, the co-director of B.U.’s Center for the study of Traumatic Encephalopathy and co-founder of the Sports Legacy Institute, spoke with Bill Littlefield about the benefits of Gagliardi’s limited contact practice schedule, the dangers associated with any kind of impact in sports, and proposals for limiting contact in youth play.
“No hits to the head are good hits and the fewer you take, the better,” said Cantu. Though most hits to the head in practices and games do not lead to concussions, dangers of sub-concussive hits remain, even with restrictions on contact.“Players that did not have any recognized concussion—some of them showed deterioration on their intellectual function as measured by neuropsychological tests,” he explained. In some cases, individuals who have taken over 1,000 hits to the head in a year demonstrate brain abnormalities.
While experts have not come to a conclusion regarding a safe number of hits for young athletes, Cantu and the Sports Legacy Institute have proposed that all major youth sports institutions adopt a hit count. Cantu compared the process to setting a pitch count for little league players, noting how those numbers were decided rather arbitrarily.
“We’re trying to have a brainstorming session to essentially come at what is the threshold that the hit count should be set at in terms of what gets called a hit,” he said. This research also aims to define a reasonable number of maximum hits per game, week, season, and year for youth players.
Cantu says coaches for youth leagues need to be mindful of how many hits players take, both in practice and during games. He also recommends coaches looking to protect players could adopt a John Gagliardi-style method in practice to limit overall trauma.