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Ivy League practice plan tackles concussions head-on

Conference-wide policy limits contact in practice to benefit players

By Brian Hendrickson

Bob Surace learned early in his career that toughness didn’t need to be developed just through hitting and tackling, which is good news for people who worry about concussions in football.

The Princeton coach’s philosophy was influenced by legendary head coaches like Marv Levy, Bill Walsh and Paul Brown. And while those coaches marched their teams to multiple Super Bowls and conference titles, Surace learned from their coaching offspring that hitting hard and playing tough wasn’t necessarily a practiced art. Those workouts involved more teaching than tackling, and Surace took note in the effects.

“We were physical teams,” said Surace, whose career path spans Division III sidelines to the NFL. “You found you can play physical, tough football and do things where you’re limiting contact whenever it’s possible.”

So Surace beat the drum of support when the Ivy League decided last year to institute new practice regulations designed to reduce football players’ exposure to the contact that can cause concussions. Starting with the 2010 season, the Ivy League implemented a conference-wide practice regimen in football that limited full-contact practice opportunities to a maximum of two per week.

At the same time, the league emphasized teaching proper tackling and blocking techniques in the belief that added instruction could help players avoid the types of contact that can lead to traumatic brain injuries. Experts say such injuries can occur not only from the head-to-head collisions that often draw attention during tackling but also from contact with elbows and playing equipment.

The exact benefit of the practice modifications is not yet known. The Ivy League is currently researching the effects and has partnered with the Big Ten Conference to study the issue. But with concerns about concussions and the possible long-term health issues that could be associated with them gaining momentum in recent years, the league decided it couldn’t wait to react to definitive research, according to Ivy League Executive Director Robin Harris.

So after exploring the issue for a year through a committee of medical and athletics personnel, the Ivy League instituted the regulations to reduce contact practices. During the week’s remaining practices, no contact or live tackling is allowed and players can’t be “taken to the ground.” In addition, no shoulder pads are allowed, though helmets, thigh pads and other protective gear are permitted for safety precautions.

The rule changes also scaled back contact practices in the spring to seven (42 percent fewer than the NCAA-allowed 12), five of which can involve tackling. The Ivy also enhanced its existing postgame-review procedure for assessing additional sanctions for “targeting” or helmet-to-helmet hits, strengthening the application of the NCAA rule change in 2009 that allowed additional reviews and sanctions by conference offices after a game.

“This was presidentially driven, but anyone that I’ve asked to be involved with this has readily agreed to be a participant, largely because of the concern about protecting our student-athletes and their well-being now and in the long run,” Harris said. “The presidents felt that we had enough data to know that there were issues, but we recognized that we didn’t have all the data. But the presidents felt that we could not wait to get all the data. We had to take action now.”

After similar reviews occurred in men’s and women’s lacrosse, soccer and ice hockey, the concept is now being applied to other sports.

In July, the league adopted new practice rules in lacrosse and soccer designed to reduce contact in the same spirit as football. In lacrosse, a sport that saw most of the concussions reported in the Ivy League from 2009 to 2011 occurring from player contact, coaches now must designate days in which body checking will not be allowed in practice (11 days for men, 10 for women). Men’s teams are also limited to one full-contact practice per day, and coaches are instructed to emphasize proper body-contact technique.

Inexperience was cited as a possible cause of concussions in women’s lacrosse (freshman accounted for a higher percentage of reported concussions from 2009 to 2011 than their representation on the team), so instructing proper stick-checking techniques is being emphasized in practice and skill sessions.

In soccer, nearly half of the concussions recorded from 2009 to 2011 resulted from contact with another player’s head, elbow or foot. As a result, the league is working to educate teams on proper technique. Teams are also receiving instruction about a recent NCAA rule change that allows for the substitution and re-entry of players with concussion-like symptoms so they can be evaluated.

The league is now turning its review toward men’s and women’s ice hockey to consider similar safeguards.

“The Ivy League showed some great leadership and initiative,” said Margot Putukian, Princeton’s director of athletics medicine services, which treats more than 50 concussions per year among the school’s 38 sports, 14 of which are considered high risk for the injury. “It was a matter of trying to enforce the educational piece, as well as considering how these injuries occur in the sport and what we could do from a strength and conditioning standpoint that might diminish concussions.”

Surace said the emphasis on instruction has been as important as the reduction in contact. Using a shield in a drill or walking through a play may protect a player in practice. But investing in additional technique instruction during workouts can also protect them in games, he said.

“There are times where, if you don’t teach certain tackling techniques, you’re putting your players at risk,” Surace said. “If you don’t teach certain blocking techniques, you’re putting your players at risk. So there’s got to be a nice balance there. And I think through Robin Harris, through the presidents, through the administrators, the Ivy League has found that balance.”