“Football is a violent game. There is no way to get around that. But if there are things out there that we can due to increase the safety level, that’s what we are going to do,” Bone said.
For several years, the athletic department at CHS has been brainstorming and researching ways they could increase the safety of high school sports, with a focus on football.
Last year, the department found the Riddell Insite Training Tool, technology with helmet inserts that measures the impact a player receives every time he suffers a hit to their head.
The athletic department conducted more research regarding the Insite Training Tool and talked with local high schools that already had the technology. Head coach of the CHS varsity football team, Linwood Barnes, also knew about the tool and began discussions with the athletic department and administration about investing in the helmet inserts.
“The product was going into its second generation this year, which we felt was important because [Riddell] has gotten a lot of the bugs and kinks out of it,” Bone said. “And we felt like for the safety of our kids, this was a good safety factor for them.”
There are three parts of the Insite Training Tool. First is the helmet sensor pad, which is an insert inside the helmet. There are four sensors in each helmet, one on each side, the crown and the back of the helmet. Whenever there is a strong impact, or the force of an impact exceeds the pre-set threshold value on a sensor, the technology will signal an alert to the alert monitor, the second part of the Insite Training Tool.
The alert monitor is a remote that Kristen Saunders, the CHS athletic trainer, holds during practices and games. When the remote receives an alert, it will show the name of the player and the time that the impact occurred.
Before the program had this technology, Saunders tried to watch every hit during practices and games, which was a difficult task for a single person.
“Being by myself [on the field or sideline] is hard, especially when there’s different tackling drills going on. The linebackers practice one side of the field, the D-lines are on the other side and the safeties are elsewhere. So when the players are all spread out on the field, it’s hard to watch each drill, so the new technology is just another tool to help us,” Saunders said.
The third part of the Insite Training Tool is an online computer software that allows coaches to analyze the hits each player receives or takes to the head. After each game or practice, the coaching staff will plug the remote into a computer, and the computer will show the coaches each impact that happened that day, what drill it happened in, where on the helmet the impact occurred and the intensity of the impact.
By implementing this technology into the helmets, the Clayton football program has been able to increase safety and enforce better tackling and hitting techniques.
“It gives me more insight,” Barnes said. “If someone gets a head injury during tackling, I know we need to change that up and try to figure out what we were doing wrong. Instead of having two sets of eyes, I have 30 or 40 sets of eyes because it monitors everybody.”
Bone has also expressed his appreciation for the Riddell Insite Tool’s role in improved tackling technique.
“If a kid hit somebody and he has lowered his head and the impact is on the front part of the helmet then that will show up on on the readout. We’re then able to make adjustments in the coaching. So when you put everything together, [the Riddell Insight Training Tool] increases safety and acts as a teaching tool,” Bone said.
However, the helmets are not capable of reporting the severity of an injury a player receives as a result of a hit.
“Helmet accelerometers give you useful information but they don’t tell you if you have a concussion,” Dr. Roseanne Naunheim, associate professor of emergency medicine for Washington University in St. Louis at Barnes Jewish Hospital said. “They tell you how hard you’ve been hit, but don’t tell you what’s going on inside the brain.”
Because of this, when she recieves an alert, Saunders will pull that player out of the game or practice and will conduct an examination to determine if the player has been injured by the high impact hit. She receives on average two-to-three alerts per game and one-to-two each week of practice.
The Greyhounds work on a new play during a practice at Gay Field.
If the player is suspected of having a concussion, he must be cleared by a physician before they can return to play. From there, a player must be symptom-free for a full day before he can begin the five-day procedure for returning to the field. On the first day, the player undergoes a light cardio workout, which increases to a more strenuous workout on the second day. By the third day, a player can participate in half of a non-contact practice. After four days, he can once again fully participate in practices, and by the fifth day, can return to the field during games. According to Saunders, if at any point during the process a player shows symptoms, he must return to step one.
Even at the national level, the NFL has made efforts to make football a safer game. In March, before the 2018-19 season, the organization instituted a rule that would penalize a player for lowering his head to initiate a hit with an opposing player. This sets a precedent for safer tackling across all football levels.
“Whenever there are rule changes in the NFL, the changes will trickle down to college football and then the high school level,” Saunders said.
Initially, the team experienced an adjustment period with the new helmets. At the beginning of the season, Saunders was getting many more alerts than she does now. However, this new technology has helped the players develop safer tackling techniques.
“The guys were made more aware they need to stop leading with their heads. So now they’re just more aware of how to tackle and they’re not leading with their head anymore,” Saunders said.
Although Clayton is using the second generation of the Insite Tool, Saunders has noticed some faults in the technology.
She said, “I’ve had alerts and then the player comes off and they’re fine. And then I’ve also had a player come off on the sideline saying that he has a headache and I didn’t have an alert.”
Even though high school and college football programs across the country use helmet accelerometers, there are some medical experts who do not think the Insite Tool technology is worth the investment.
We really hope that our students and our parents too understand that we’re trying to do everything we can to be as safe as possible. I think a big concern is the concussions. Obviously we can’t take that concern away, but maybe we can soften that a little bit. We’re doing everything we can”
— Bob Bone, CHS Athletic Director
“In an accelerometer helmet, the accelerometer is just an extra bell and whistle that is unnecessary at this point and may led to more confusion and worry than help for a lot of people,” Mark Halstead, director of the Washington University sports concussion program, said. “I would not recommend [accelerometer helmets] at this point … They are more utilized in a research setting than they are to help someone on the field right now. Helmets still serve a purpose, like preventing bleeds in the brain or skull fractures, but they don’t do a very good job reducing concussions.”
“We really hope that our students and our parents too understand that we’re trying to do everything we can to be as safe as possible. I think a big concern is the concussions. Obviously we can’t take that concern away, but maybe we can soften that a little bit. We’re doing everything we can,” Bone said.