USA Football's Hallenbeck Talks Football Safety

  • By John Antonik
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  • April 16, 2014 09:17 PM
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Scott Hallenbeck, Executive Director of USA Football, gives a presentation at Milan Puskar Stadium's Touchdown Terrace as part of the Don Nehlen Lecture Series on Wednesday night.
All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo
Scott Hallenbeck, Executive Director of USA Football, was in Morgantown on Wednesday night to take part in the Don Nehlen Lecture Series, sponsored by the West Virginia University College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences.
His presentation took place at Milan Puskar Stadium’s Touchdown Terrace.
Hallenbeck oversees a national organization that is based in Indianapolis and has nearly 2,800 youth leagues across the United States registered for its Heads Up Football program, a comprehensive approach to a better and safer game. The program includes coaching education, equipment fitting, concussion recognition and response, heat and hydration, heads up tackling and implementation of a player safety coach for participating schools.
Just last month, Hallenbeck was invited to testify before the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade regarding USA Football’s efforts to improve safety in youth sports.
USA Football is a non-profit organization that was endowed by the National Football League and the NFL Players Association in 2002 through the NFL Youth Football Fund, but Hallenbeck said his organization is completely independent of professional football.
“The NFL has made Heads Up Football a big deal, which is great, but what we have to focus on is there is actually a program here and it’s about certification, it’s about training, it’s about assessment and verification and it’s about making sure these coaches are prepared to coach in the right way with the right things,” he said.
The skeptics will argue that USA Football is merely a shield or a voice box for the NFL, but Hallenbeck points to the tangible progress his organization is making to improve the safety and well being of youth football players across the country.
“Say what you want, but the bottom line is when you peel the onion back you can see that we’ve got 2,800 youth organizations out of about 10,000 – almost 30 percent of the marketplace - and that’s unheard of in football, the most fragmented of all youth sports,” said Hallenbeck. “We’ve got them engaged in Heads Up Football. We are changing behavior and we’re changing the culture. It’s working.”
Perhaps the most important function of the Heads Up Football program is the coaching certification process that is currently being adopted by participating organizations.
How many times through the years have we encountered a bad coach, or one who lacked specific sports knowledge, and we subsequently lost interest or stopped participating because of it? Hallenbeck said ESPN did a study a few years ago asking players aged six to 17 why they stopped playing sports. The majority of them said they quit playing because of coaching.
As part of its education process, USA Football is requiring coaches from participating youth programs to be trained to teach fundamentals by completing an in-depth, nationally accredited Level I Coaching Certification Course, developed in partnership with the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Sports such as soccer already have an elaborate certification process in place for their coaches through the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, as do many professional organizations.
“You look at any profession, certainly teachers or professors or any business profession – there is a continuing education process,” Hallenbeck noted. “There are new ways of doing things. We are always striving to do things better and more efficiently. Why would that not be the case for sports?
“We’re looking at it more along the lines of a curriculum,” he continued. “Soccer does it. They have levels, and whether they are right or wrong, they pay more money depending upon how high you go. Football is probably not going to head down that path any time soon, but we are looking at a new paradigm or a new pathway where you could, hypothetically, have a Level-1 coach be a youth-level coach and a Level-10 coach may be a top-level college coach. What is two through nine? That’s where we want to go. We want to create a true pathway and a true certification model.”
Of course injuries, especially concussions, have dominated the attention of those interested in football at all levels and Heads Up Football is attempting to tackle that issue by educating youth coaches on concussion-related protocols. However, Hallenbeck cautions that concussions are not just happening in football, but in sports across the board. In one recent study, the prevalence of concussions in women’s college soccer was actually higher than in college football.
“Early on it was all about football, but people are realizing there are concussion issues in a lot of different sports,” said Hallenbeck. “It’s a sports issue, not just a football issue.”
Equally disturbing to the health of our nation’s youth is the declining participation levels in sports across the board, says Hallenbeck.
“The Sports & Fitness Industry Association has come out with a study that stated we have a ‘pandemic’ – not an epidemic or a crisis – but a pandemic in obesity and inactivity. There are at least 20 percent of kids today that literally do no activity. They don’t walk for activity. They do nothing. Their form of activity is being on their iPad and being on their iPhone at the same time.”
Some of that, Hallenbeck maintains, can be attributed to the growing trend of sports specialization that is being promoted today by some youth sports organizations. For example, several organizations now “encourage” year-round participation to further develop players’ skills in that particular sport. If athletes decline, they run the risk of losing ground to their peers, or so they are told. Years ago, athletic participation was more seasonal with kids competing in many different sports throughout the year.
“Every sport today, except football, has interest in having year-round activities,” said Hallenbeck. “Everything is travel-based, tournament-based and club-based. We are having what I call the ‘marginalization of the recreational athlete.’ It’s the idea that they have nowhere to go. By nine, 10, 11, or 12 years old, if you don’t feel like there is a place for you in travel soccer, baseball or what have you, you have nowhere to go.”
Hallenbeck says most of the NFL coaches and top college football coaches that he interacts with say they are always on the lookout for multi-sport athletes. How many times have we heard of a college football coach discovering his future left tackle playing a high school basketball game or finding a fleet wide receiver running a high school track meet?
“If an athlete plays multiple sports they immediately get the football coach’s attention,” said Hallenbeck.
USA Football actually encourages multi-sport participation, says Hallenbeck.
“It’s being proved that the best athletes are multi-sport athletes who take time off to develop their other skills, to develop their other muscle groups and so forth,” he noted. “They are the ones who ultimately have long-term success.”
As for the long-term success of Heads Up Football, Hallenbeck pointed out that his program is on track to sign up more than half of the youth football organizations in the country by the end of its second year.
“In any sport to get that kind of traction and engagement is unheard of,” he said.
Down the road, Hallenbeck can envision a day when USA Football is even educating the educators – board of education members overseeing the entire high school sports program or youth-league football organizers who simply volunteer their time.
“So far, we’ve been focused on coaching education and player education and player development,” he said. “What we’ve learned through this process is that we have a good program, but if you don’t have good leadership and administration in place, it doesn’t matter how good your program is.
“We’re creating a program development strategy to help the educators and the leaders become better,” he said. “These are volunteers on every level. I respect these people greatly. It’s a challenge. They have a full-time job just trying to keep food on the table for their family, and they have a full-time job running these leagues.”
He summed up his organization’s work this way, “What we are doing is unearthing all of the areas that we need to apply to teaching. It’s a long-term proposition.”
A long-term proposition, indeed, but clearly a necessary one for the continued development of youth football across the United States.