High school football coaches remember the old days when playing football meant long, punishing practices, when intense blocking and tackling drills were meant to cull the weak from the strong and drinking water in practice was only for weaklings.
Clay-Chalkville High School head football coach Jerry Hood says he is glad those days are gone forever.
“A lot of the things we learned as players and early in our coaching careers, there’s better ways to do those things now,” Hood said. “We practiced tackling all this summer with just helmets on because we are teaching a new way to tackle that keeps the head out of it. We think those kinds of things are very effective.”
As the game of high school football’s playing rules have changed, so have the techniques and the emphasis on teaching. Practice sessions for AHSAA schools are now spent concentrating on the fundamental techniques that are designed to make the sport safer. Hood, who led the Cougars to a 15-0 season in 2014 and the Class 6A state football championship, says the game has now evolved to one that is safer than it has ever been. He said a recent study by Michigan State University has shown that current tackling and blocking fundamentals are reducing concussions.
“The way offensive and defensive linemen play with their hands these days, there are a lot less head and shoulder collisions in the interior offensive and defensive lines than it used to be,” Hood said. “So, things have changed drastically in our teaching techniques.
“I think the game is now much safer than it was 20 years ago and safer than it was even 10 years ago.”
Hood said it starts in the grassroots – at practice. It is a philosophy that has helped the game of football evolve into a showcase of athleticism, speed and excitement.
“Our coaches at the high school level have reached down to the youth league level and the middle school coaches,” Hood explained. “We’re smarter about what happens to the body when you go through football practice and football games. We watch it much more carefully.”
“I think neck strength has a lot to do with it. The Michigan State study shows that it correlates to a reduction in concussions. I also think our helmet hardware is better, and I think the sport is much, much safer than it used to be.”
Dothan High School football coach Kelvis White also points to the rules’ changes that allow offensive linemen to use their upper-body strength by extending their arms as another major reason the game is much safer. White says teaching those techniques must also include intense strength training and some psychology by the coaches to convince the players that the new techniques do work best.
White said when parents question his staff’s more modern teaching styles, he points out: “The game has changed. Kids today are bigger, stronger and faster so the impact is much greater. I tell the parents that by today’s standards, we want to keep the players safe so they can have a healthy lifestyle when they are through with football.”
White said he has learned to hang on to the good teaching practices of men like his own dad Louis White. Louis directed Courtland High School to four Class 1A state titles during his 30-year coaching career and was inducted into the AHSAA Sports Hall of Fame in 2003.
“My dad was an open book,” White said. “His practices were always open. If a kid had a problem, they talked to him and if a parent had a question, they talked to him. I try to do the same now and keep an open line of communication so the players and parents can learn to trust me. My dad had a lot of old school in him, but at the same time, the kids always came first.”
Central-Phenix City High School athletic director, volleyball and basketball coach Carolyn Wright said coaches in each AHSAA sport are promoting best health and safety practices.
“It starts first with a pre-participation physical,” she said. “It give us some idea of a student’s physical condition going into a season,” she said. “We always start our practices with a dynamic warm-up, then do our stretching. There is no option … we do it every practice in volleyball and basketball before we move into our normal drills.”
She said water is available in the gym at all times, and breaks are taken with the frequency dependent on the intensity of each drill. She says good coaching is more than teaching them how to shoot or dribble or run or jump.
“Our conditioning program deals with getting the core stronger,” she said. “We try to concentrate on diet by giving them a good synopsis of what they should be eating and things they should try to stay away from. We try to keep them drinking more water and not sodas and beverages like that. Getting the proper rest is also very important. We tell our players after practice to get home, do their homework, get a bath and then get in bed.”
“Our coaches are much more educated in Alabama thanks to the programs of the AHSAA and are very conscious about what it takes to keep the kids healthy.
“With me, I have been in the business for so long that I can tell the difference in a slight twist and a more serious injury just by the sound of the player’s voice and by the way they fall. I am here to tell you that there are a lot of other coaches out there just as experienced as I am.”