For the last five weeks, Anoka Ramsey Athletic Association football coaches gathered on the practice fields west of Anoka High School.
The weekly sessions served a common goal to ensure kids participating at the youth level were taught proper techniques to stay safe, while learning how to play the game.
The sessions began after Anoka Ramsey adopted USA Football’s Heads Up program, the only nationally accredited courses created by football experts and health professionals.
Wednesday evening youth coaches were guided by Anoka varsity head coach Jeff Buerkle and defensive backs coach Tim Hale through a series of drills, warm-ups and techniques specific to that position.
As part of the Heads Up program, Anoka Ramsey adopted several new initiatives for the 2014 season, including appointing a player safety coordinator. All coaches must become certified in the Heads Up program and complete an online training course. That course focuses on proper tackling fundamentals and concussion training. The player safety coordinator also conducts a training session before the first practice.
ARAA’s Player Safety Coordinator Paul Lombard, a 1989 Blaine High School graduate, was part of the 1988 football team that reached the state championship under then-head coach Dave Nelson. He played college football at the University of Minnesota Duluth and is an ARAA board member.
Lombard recently attended a weekend training session for the Heads Up program at Winter Park in Eden Prairie after completing 10 hours of online coursework.
Lombard and fellow coach Harold Harris are working on ways to keep kids playing football safe.
“It’s a big step for us,” Lombard said realizing the changes for the program to help ensure players are safe in the future.
Baseline concussion testing, the coaches clinic and minimizing contact the first week are among other guidelines layed out by USA Football. Players will also receive training during the first week of practice with only helmets and shoulder pads to be used that week.
Lombard said overall participation numbers in football remain strong, but fewer younger kids are coming out.
“I started coaching third- and fourth-graders, and now I have a ninth-grade son,” Lombard said. “We had eight teams of third-fourth graders when he played, and last year we saw half that.”
He added that some parents have requested extending flag football past second grade.
“So we started with safety initiatives and executing (those ideas),” Lombard said with a focus on teaching kids safer football techniques through a series of tackling progression steps.
Consistency in addition to safety were two of the key takeaways from the training session on the practice fields behind Anoka High School July 9.
A youth football jamboree is scheduled for Aug. 11 where more than 450 youth football players in the ARAA program will gather to kick off the season.
During the season, third- and fourth-graders will meet in a group setting at the high school for specialized training to teach proper and safe technique.
ARAA Football Commissioner Steve Hansen started the process of upgrading football helmets years ago, and the association invested heavily in new helmets for this season.
“I’ve been passing out football helmets to kids in the community for the past seven years,” Lombard said. “And when I look at the rack I have to choose from, I feel we have made tremendous strides in the quality of helmets and equipment we can offer.”
“Steve has done a great job of leading this effort,” he said.
Lombard said the renewed focus on safety is necessary because of the benefits – like ethics, teamwork, camaraderie and discipline – that come from being part of a team. “And that goes way beyond football,” Lombard added. “We’re fortunate to have a high school football staff in our community that measures success by more than just wins and losses.”
Lombard admitted that they wish they could assure parents that the safety initiatives will eliminate concussions. “We can assure them that we are putting tremendous effort into making the game as safe as possible for youth players, and we are putting safety as a top priority in our youth program,” he said.
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