Concussions and related safety concerns have drawn a lot of focus at the highest levels of football in recent years and the USA Football program has made it a goal to address those issues through the proper training of coaches — holding one of its clinics in Newton recently.

The Heads up Player Safety Coach clinic was intended to coach PSCs (representing area youth leagues and high school teams) new, safe tackling techniques, as well as other core pillars of the program — i.e. managing heat and hydration, concussion recognition and return to play protocol, equipment fitting, etc. — lined out by USA Football master trainer Mike Bellers.

Bellers has been presenting with USA Football — the sport's national governing body — for three years and leads about six clinics a year all over the country (with 100s more regularly taking place between February and August). Having a long history in coaching himself, Bellers knows firsthand the traps they can fall into and why these clinics are important.

"I think, for years, especially us as football coaches, we've been guilty of assuming that we were taught the correct way and we all had great coaches that we looked up to and everything that they did was the way that we should replicate what we do as coaches," Bellers said, "but I think it's just natural that the sport has to evolve. So, USA football filled a void of the need for us to update and make sure that we are staying current with the best practices and procedures to make the game better and safer."

What that entails is training local coaches to go out and implement the techniques that USA has tested in their own leagues. Steve Ratzlaff was charged with taking those lessons back to the Halstead Football Club (a program for players in third through sixth grades).

Ratzlaff noted he has been attending the Heads Up Football clinics for three years now, with the Halstead club utilizing the program's practices for that same period of time. Ratzlaff noted the tackling approach hasn't changed much (though the focus introduced in 2017 was on shoulder tackling), but he realizes just how important the program is, especially at an early age.

"Essentially, they're coming out with new fundamentals in tackling to try to teach kids to tackle without having their head involved, so the upgraded tackling techniques and the safety procedures that they're trying to implement are important for us," Ratzlaff said. "I think the quicker that they learn the proper technique, the more it becomes habit and the less likely they are as they get older to involve their head."

Teams using the Heads Up technique, it was noted at the clinic, had 63 percent less injury rate than teams that weren't. Additionally, Ratzlaff noted learning about how to handle some less prevalent emergency situations was also appreciated.

Like Bellers, Ratzlaff pointed to coaches being creatures of habit in sticking to the techniques they were taught in their playing days. Ratzlaff admitted that in his four years at Halstead High School, there was only one severe injury (knee) among his teammates. While concussions may still be a greater risk at higher levels, Ratzlaff is all for starting good habits at an early age.

"I do think it'll help our kids learn a technique that will help them stay away from injuries going forward and not put them in as risky a situation when they're making tackles and blocking and things like that," Ratzlaff said. "There's a huge concern about concussions and they're talking about it at the professional level. I think sometimes people see that and they get really scared about youth football, but we don't see a lot of that at the youth football level. The level of contact is considerably different then what's happening in the NFL."

Along with teaching the coaches, Bellers noted it is important for parents to understand the new techniques — as they, too, might be inclined to pass on what they were taught originally (a point Ratzlaff brought up as well). He, too, has heard the safety concerns from parents, as well as those regarding quality of coaches — something the USA Football program, which goes beyond the state safety standards of Kansas, is trying ease through its clinics and follow-up testing.

"That's what we're trying to ensure, that we've evolved and we're sharing the best practices and your coach is doing them. So, if I had a kid, I'd want the coach that my son had, I'd want them to go through this program. It'd make it safer," Bellers said. "It's big for us to make sure that we have the safest possible coaches giving them the best information and procedures possible, and then making sure that we have accountability to make sure they're doing it correctly."