One of the goals of high school sports is to keep athletes safe, yet injuries do happen.
Preventing injuries is of heightened concern in collision sports, such as football, ice hockey, boys lacrosse and wrestling. And the main fear in these high-contact sports -- from youth recreation programs to the pros -- is to avoid concussions. Media reports of concussions in recent years have increased in coverage of sports at all levels. Everyone is aware of it.
This issue was addressed when head coach Vince Camera and his new staff mapped out their goals in taking over Fairfield Ludlowe football this year. The start of practice on Aug. 20 was the ideal time for Camera and his defensive coordinator, John Prenderville, to emphasize proper tackling techniques that would reduce -- but not eliminate -- the likelihood of players sustaining concussions.
The first few days of practice for the Fairfield Ludlowe defensive players did not feature traditonal drills and installing new formations and coverage responsibilities. Training centered on clearly defining the right way to approach ball carriers and receivers and how to follow through in making contact without inflicting or suffering a concussion.
But while the Falcons were being trained on "safe" tackling, it had been implemented elsewhere in town. Fairfield Warde, Fairfield Prep and Notre Dame-Fairfield had already incorporated proper tackling methods. Their preseason practices reemphasized the right way to tackle.
All the fuss boils down to avoiding the head as a target and for the helmet not to be the initial striking point for tacklers.
" Nothing will trump the safety of these young men who are entrusted to you," said Tom Shea, in his 11th year as head coach at Fairfield Prep. "We're competitive, but these are kids. It's a game for our children, and we never lose sight of that."
Proper tackling is part of everyday drills for the Jesuits. "We instruct on how to come in and lead with the shoulder -- never come in with the head. That would cause neck and head injuries."
Fairfield Prep already has upgraded to better helmets, which is a comfort to Shea. But sturdier and safer equipment is only part of the solution. Other steps are available. "We've cut back in our practice time with full contact," Shea said.
Duncan DellaVolpe, in his fifth year as head coach of Fairfield Warde, said full contact is limited for the Mustangs as well, including scrimmages and practice. "The coaches previous to me had done the work," DellaVolpe said, "but my approach is that I'll teach it a little different about (tacklers) not leading with the head."
The Mustangs will review video on proper tackling. Drills on it are done in a step-by-step manner not at full speed and without contact. "We work on form and technique. It's where you place your head and your shoulders."
DellaVolpe spent 10 years as an assistant coach at New Canaan, and safe tackling was glossed over there in that time. "I've always been concerned about keeping the head out of contact," he said. DellaVolpe credits his assistant coaches for their diligence in teaching the right way to tackle. But football is a fast-paced sport requiring instinctive reactions, so unsafe tackling pops up occasionally.
"If we have a player who (leads with the helmet), we spend a lot of time working with him on the right way to tackle. We work on not making that (become) a habit."
Proper tackling can be ingrained if stressed repeatedly. That's the view of Prenderville. In 2009, he witnessed a clinic on safe tackling for Westport PAL football. Prenderville, whose sons had sustained concussions while playing recreation and high school football and lacrosse, became a believer after that.
"You have to look at it as a father and not as a coach," he said. "We just felt it was an important part of developing a football program to go over it at the start. We lost time going over schemes to teach it."
Prenderville, an experienced coach, said tackling was taught years ago to initiate contact on the rusher or receiver with the facemask of the tackler, and the aim often would be low. Legs and knees of offensive players would often collide with a defender's helmet -- a recipe for a concussion.
Ted Boynton, the first-year coach at Notre Dame-Fairfield, is incorporating safe tackling into the Lancers' daily routine. Emphasis of proper tackling started on day No. 1 of practice.
"We first talk about the importance and the consequences if you do not tackle properly," Boynton said. Notre Dame-Fairfield's drills pair players together by size and two coaches demonstrate the proper techniques. Then there is a walkthrough by the players wth commands at half-speed, finishing at full speed.
Though standing on different sidelines, Shea, DellaVolpe, Boynton and Prenderville are in agreement.
The key to a solution is taking the head out of the equation, coupled with more advanced and protective helmets and repetition of proper drills.