‘Heads Up Football’ in Bothell keeps helmet hits out of the tackle mix

Sep 3, 2013, 8:30 AM | Updated: 9:05 am
With heads Up Football coaches are better trained and equipment is better and more properly fitted. Kids aren't picking out their helmets, like above, based on a facemask. (AP Photo/File)
(AP Photo/File)

There has never been a more concerted effort to make football safer, to limit the helmet-to-helmet hits and to better deal with concussions and head injuries.

There are rule changes and coaches are better trained and have better techniques.

But of all their resources, how coaches speak to their players might actually have the biggest impact on making the game safer.

When I was playing 25 years ago, coaches would use creative language to give us visuals of what they wanted us to do, like “put your screws under his chin,” or “ear-hole them” or “bite the ball.”

Tom Bainter is the head football coach at Bothell High School and now he’s using different phrases. He played football in college, and he’s been coaching for more than two decades. He’s a master trainer for USA Football, a program created by the NFL to improve the safety of the game at all levels.

He teaches other coaches how to coach better and safer. One of his biggest tools is using language differently.

“We have to choose our words better. When you say, ‘Put your screws under his chin,’ what that really means is get your pad levels under your opponent. And that’s what we have to say. ‘Pad under pad. Low man wins,'” explains Bainter. “Those are things we need to say now, instead of giving them a visual of taking the front part of your helmet where your forehead is and smacking it under the guy’s chin who is in front of you.”

Coach Bainter teaches “Heads Up Football.” It takes the idea of keeping your eyes up and looking at what you’re hitting to the next level by teaching players to hit with the fronts of their shoulders and chests instead of the tops of their shoulders. It helps take the head out of the tackle.

They practice tackling at low speeds and against air, not other players. They only take players to the ground in limited reps.

Coach Bainter says they’re not turning this into flag or touch football. They’re just teaching the game smarter.

“You’re absolutely to be as physical as you can. You run through the tackle. You do everything correctly, and at full speed, and go – but let’s do it safely.”

No more “Bull in the Ring” or tough-man contests at the end of practice. There’s no need to toughen players up or question their manhood. Coach Bainter says if they’re out for football they’re tough enough.

“One of the things we’re told – is if we don’t change the culture of football – it can go away, and they’re not saying in three years, or in five years. But we’re hearing in 10 or 15 or maybe 20 years.”

So coaches are better trained. Equipment is better and properly fitted.

Gone are the days where a kid would pick a helmet based on its face mask. Coaches measure heads and shoulders now to make sure everything fits, even at the lowest levels.

Parents go through the “Heads Up” training too so they know what to look for and how to check for concussions.

It’s all in the name of safety.

“To me, it’s education,” says Bainter. “We’re educating coaches and parents and players, and that’s a huge step to me.”

Bothell is one of the first high schools in the state to adopt the “Heads Up” program. It will be expanded in 2014.

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‘Heads Up Football’ in Bothell keeps helmet hits out of the tackle mix