It’s that time of year. July has flown by and the calendar will turn to August in just a few days. NFL training camps have already started and pre-season practices will start for colleges and high schools in the coming days and weeks. Football isn’t the only sport that is ramping up, but it is one of the most equipment intensive. The continued attention on concussions and minimizing their likelihood has put focus on the equipment, especially helmets. If you’re not familiar with the guidelines that govern helmets it can be overwhelming. While no helmet will prevent concussions entirely, properly certified and fit helmets are the most effective at minimizing the risk.
The National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) is the organization that certifies football helmets in the United States. They also certify other sport helmets including softball/baseball, lacrosse and hockey. When checking out your child’s equipment or communicating with the league regarding equipment check for a current NOCSAE label on the back of the helmet. Schutt, one of the major helmet manufacturers has even started putting QR codes in the NOCSAE label to teach parents and athletes about concussions.
The NOCSAE certification means the helmet has gone through various laboratory test to assess their ability to withstand a variety of forces. Once the helmet passes the testing and meets the appropriate standard the helmet receives its NOCSAE label and can be sold by its manufacturer. For helmets that have been used for a season they are sent back to the manufacturer to be recertified. NOCSAE also has specific standards for the recertification process. If you want to learn more about the reconditioning and recertification process you can check out these videos by Riddell, Schutt and Xenith, three of the major helmet manufacturers.
SELECTING A HELMET
Often times, coaches, in conjunction with administrators and equipment managers will make the selection of equipment prior to athletes joining the team based on a variety of factors. Athletes often are then just fit for the appropriate sized helmet (and other pads) from the available selection. Parents in the position to select equipment specifically for their child should research the available options. To start you must know whether you need a youth or adult helmet, what type of helmet is most comfortable for the athlete and what position he will be playing (this influences facemask selection). Youth athletes should not wear adult helmets and vice versa. The helmets may be made using different design specifications and especially in the case of an adult wearing a youth helmet, may not provide the expected protection. Once you have this information, investigating each of the major manufacturers, looking at NOCSAE guidelines and test results for given helmets and even utilizing the Virginia Tech STAR Rating System can help you make your final decision. As a note, there is some controversy regarding the accuracy of the STAR Rating System so I have linked some recent discussion regarding the topic, so you can make an informed decision.
Also be aware, that some companies are also pushing helmet add-on products as a way to reduce the likelihood of concussions. This method of additional protection has become so popular that NOCSAE has released a statement regarding the use of such products and how that impacts the helmet warranty. Personally, I am not an advocate of such products since I believe if they were proven effective helmet companies would be including them as part of the standard design, but others would disagree. They argue there is not enough research available currently to make a determination for or against the products at this time. Again, I urge you to educate yourself and make an informed decision. To help in that regard I have included NOCSAE’s statement regarding the use of such products on football helmets.
FITTING A FOOTBALL HELMET
Finally, the most important thing you can do is to be sure your child’s helmet fits correctly. There should be someone who is responsible for issuing the equipment that is trained in the proper fitting of such equipment, no matter the athlete skill level. Colleges often have athletic trainers and equipment managers who have been trained to assess the fit of helmets and other equipment. For any youth or high school team that does not have an athletic trainer and/or equipment manager, parents should confirm that coaches or administrators who will be issuing equipment have the proper training to do so.
Additionally, parents should be familiar with the basics so they can check the status of their child’s equipment as the opportunity presents itself. Many modern helmets are now fit with air bladders that need to be inflated and re-inflated regularly to ensure the proper fit. Someone on the team should be designated to check this regularly on all players, but parents can quickly assess this too. Ask your child to put on his helmet, strapping the chinstrap and then provide a firm downward pressure to the crown of the helmet. If the helmet is properly inflated there should be a slight recoil of the helmet when you release your hand. If there is no recoil, the helmet does not have enough air, be sure the helmet is inflated before the start of play. Secondly, facing the athlete, grasp the facemask and attempt to rotate it left to right and up and down. The helmet should not move; if it does this could be a sign that the bladder is not properly inflated (as well as other fit concerns). Refer the athlete immediately to someone trained in fitting helmets to assess whether it’s just the air bladder or adjustments to cheek pads, helmet size or chinstrap need to be made. Helmets should fit snuggly and should move very little if properly inflated and correctly secured. Your child should not be able to easily rip off his helmet at any time, nor should his helmet pop off after being contacted by another player (assuming someone didn’t pull illegally on his facemask). If you notice any of this, the helmet is not being properly worn. Address it immediately, especially considering there is a growing trend of young athletes deflating their helmets. Doing so increases the potential concussion risk and decreases the effective protection the helmet provides against head and face injuries.
If you’d like to know more about the exact process of fitting a football helmet I’ve attached some resource links. The most important thing to remember is that when being fit the athlete should have the hairstyle he is expecting to maintain during the entire season and fit should be reassessed periodically for maximum protection.
In closing, no helmet is 100% effective at preventing concussions (or any type of head injury for that matter), but properly selected, sized and fit equipment is more effective than inappropriate or poorly fit equipment. Take the time to educate yourself (check out this article on recent helmet research) and check your child’s equipment to be sure it is functioning as intended. Spend the time to explain why he should not deflate the air bladder in his helmet or otherwise alter his equipment beyond the manufacturer’s specifications. Play hard, but play safe.
Submitted by Heather L. Clemons, MS, MBA, ATC