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Pop Warner changes practice rules for safety

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(CNN) — Pop Warner, the first national youth sport organization to implement concussion rules, is changing its rules regarding football practices.

The first rule change limits the amount of contact drills, such as one-on-one blocking, tackling and scrimmaging to 40 minutes per practice, or no more than a third of the total weekly practice time. Pop Warner already caps practice at 2 hours a day, 3 days a week during the regular season.

The second rule change prohibits full-speed head-on blocking or tackling with players more than 3 yards apart. Full speed drills may occur only when players approach each other from the angle, but not straight into each other.

“The purpose of this change in the rules is to limit the exposure in practice, which makes up the majority of head impact,” said Dr. Julian Bailes, chairman of the Pop Warner Medical Advisory Board.

Head-to-head tackling such as spearing, face tackling and butt blocking already are prohibited in Pop Warner.

According to a study, published earlier this year, youth football players hit harder and more frequently in practice.

“We thought it was important to address this as we’ve become more aware of concussions and continuing new research goes on,” said Jon Butler, executive director of Pop Warner.

According to Bailes, who also is co-director of the NorthShore Neurological Institute, “Youth players can generate high velocity hits as high as much bigger players like high school and college athletes.”

But it’s not just hard hits that worry Bailes — it’s repeated hits. “The ultimate risk of ending your career or having life long brain injury is based on exposure. They why not eliminate all those hits early in life? Why not just take it out?’

Bailes is hopeful that these new rules can help with that. “Making these rules changes, we’re hoping to reduce the number of head blows by half.”

Studies have found that repeated hits to the head can not only lead to susceptibility to concussions, but post-concussive syndrome, and even Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative disease with Alzheimer’s-like symptoms, including memory loss, dementia and aggression.

Former Chicago Bears Dave Duerson and Philadelphia Eagles Andre Waters were both found to have CTE, which can only be diagnosed after death.

Butler doesn’t believe that the rule changes will really impact many coaches.

“These rules are aimed at very small minority. People coach the way they were coached, so there maybe a few coaches out there who coach with more contact. But it’s a time of change for football.”

Pop Warner Coach Mark Meuller of Chicago agrees. “The problem with some coaches now, is that back in the day, when some coaches were learning, they went out and just tried to knock each other down. And that’s how they coach.”

Mueller added, “This will change football and it should.”

Bailes acknowledges that not everyone may welcome the changes, but believes it’s in football’s best interest. “It’s a contact sport, but we think it’s the step in the right direction. It’s evolutionary.”

He added, “I hope it begins to evolve the style of play and practice so that we remove brain trauma exposure from practice as much as we can. And we can begin to lessen the tendency for these players as they get older, to lead with their head, and hit other players with their head.”