Coaches find that less is more

Jim Kelliher describes himself as an "old school" kind of guy.

His football coaching career at Abington High has spanned five decades, beginning as an assistant in 1971. Kelliher has more than 200 career wins and three Super Bowl titles to his résumé as a head coach. But that doesn't mean he's set in his ways.

In recent years, the Green Wave head coach has taken a closer look at the amount of contact drills he's implemented at practice. Kelliher was of the mindset that toughness needed to be instilled in a player -- the result of hard-nosed practice, with plenty of hitting. It doesn't mean he's softening in his older years. He still expects his players to play with a chip on their shoulder. It's just now he feels it should be reserved for game day. It doesn't make much sense to have your stars watching from the sideline under Friday night lights.

"The only way to do that is to watch their health and make sure they can survive to the weekend," Kelliher said. "You have to give them a rest."

And so Kelliher was in the audience at Worcester's Hanover Theater to listen to the Practice Like Pros panel Saturday morning. The brainchild of former sports television producer and NFL executive Terry O'Neil, the discussion was aimed at tearing down years of football fallacy: the belief that football players, like steel, are forged from blast furnace-intensity practices.

The presentation O'Neil put together focused on the dangers of repetitive, high-impact collisions, and offered some suggestions on how to limit the risks. First, one of the nation's foremost authorities provided scientific background. Dr. Robert Cantu, senior advisor to the NFL head, neck and spine committee, spoke of his work as co-founder of the Sports Legacy Institute (SLI) at Boston University. Accompanied by a slideshow rife with chilling statistics about the prevalence of catastrophic injuries associated with football, Cantu laid out his plan to limit wear and tear on young players' bodies.

"If baseball has a pitch count, why doesn't football have a hit count?" Cantu asked while standing in front of a split-screen projection showing the anatomical model of an ulnar collateral ligament next to a human brain. Gesturing toward the backdrop, he added, "Which of these is easier to repair?"

On the issue of how many hits is too many hits, Cantu admitted the line in the sand hasn't yet been drawn. SLI launched the Hit Count initiative in February in an effort to glean better statistical analysis on the subject. However, there are other numbers to chew on. SLI reports 350,000 diagnosed concussions on high school football practice fields last season. During Saturday's presentation, O'Neil shared an anecdote told to him by one Florida-based high school coach who had six players suffer concussions during one preseason practice session.

The aim of the Practice Like Pros seminar wasn't just to alert coaches to the prevailing dangers, but also to offer solutions. Dartmouth College head coach Buddy Teevens displayed practice film, highlighting some of the alternatives to traditional defensive drills incorporating hitting. Teevens became a convert to the new ideology after watching a minicamp practice of the St. Louis Rams, under the direction of Jeff Fisher. Former Bishop Feehan and Big Green standout Nick Schwieger was invited to camp on a tryout contract and Teevens was eager to catch up with Fisher, an old coaching friend.

"I couldn't believe what I was seeing," Teevens said. Although players were practicing at full speed, with pads and helmets, there were no car-wreck collisions -- just a seamless ballet of skill. Teevens, who had already begun scaling back hitting practices, was sold.

The benefits of limited contact in practice, Teevens says, have been multifold. He asked an assistant to compile a statistical abstract of missed tackles, comparing the Big Green's performance last season to that of previous years. What they found was that the rate of missed tackles had decreased by about 50 percent. Teevens attributes that trend to the greater attention paid to fundamentals in practice.

"Plus, the reduction of shoulder injuries, knee injuries and concussive injuries has been remarkable," he said.

Along with Teevens' breakdown, Stanford head coach David Shaw and former Cleveland Browns president Mike Holmgren also volunteered snippets from their team practices at Practice Like Pros.

Following the video sessions, the group outlined its recommendations to high school coaches, which are as follows:

* Preseason: Every two-hour session of full contact must be followed by non-contact practice during two-a-days.

* In-season: Limit to one 90-minute session of full contact per week.

* Offseason: No recommendations made due to varying degree of offseason participation throughout the country. (Editor's note: The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association does not allow out-of-season organized practices.)

Recently, four states have adopted limited-contact practice rules. Arizona's governing body limited full-contact practices to one-half of preseason practices and one-third of in-season practices. Iowa banned two-a-days, while Washington has instituted restrictions to offseason practices. Meanwhile, in Texas, the undisputed Mecca of high school football, full-contact practices have been capped at 90 minutes per week, in-season. So will Massachusetts soon follow?

"We've been going in that direction, and we've still got some more to go, but today was a nice eye-opener for me to some of the things we can do," said Kelliher, who is also an executive member of the Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Association. "Football coaches are coming to realize changes need to be made. I love the game of football, and I love the idea of the contact -- that's one of the things I like to work on in practice, but at the same time it's not the way to go."