Area football coaches comment on new practice guidelines

REED CITY — When local high school football teams hit the practice field for the first official practice of the fall on Aug. 11, those teams will have to adhere to a new set of practice guidelines from the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) that were adopted this winter to improve player safety.

The MHSAA put together a Football Task Force of coaches, administrators and other experts in 2013 and after four meetings and months of research, the task force proposed some sweeping changes to the previous guidelines when it comes to the way high school teams practice.

Those changes were officially adopted in March, with the new policies reducing collision practices to one a day before the first game of the season and to two per week after the first game. In addition to new restrictions on live hitting, teams can now only practice for a maximum of three hours per practice and the total practice time for days with multiple practice sessions can’t exceed five hours.

The MHSAA classifies a collision practice as one in which there is “live, game-speed, player vs. player contact in pads involving any number of players.”

The new policies also increase the acclimatization period at the start of fall practice from three days to four days, with helmets only permitted on the first two days and helmets and shoulder pads only on the third and fourth days before full pads can be worn on the fifth day.

According to the MHSAA, the new proposals are aimed at “improving student-athlete acclimatization and reducing head trauma,” but the new policies have drawn a mixed reaction among high school coaches.

Reed City coach Monty Price said he understands why the new policies were adopted this winter, but the new rules will force the Coyotes to make substantial changes to their practice schedule this fall, especially once they’re limited to two collision practices a week once the regular season kicks into gear.

“I think it will affect everyone and it’s safe to assume a lot of this has to do with concussions and the issues that have come up when you’re talking about player safety,” he said. “It will certainly affect the way we practice. We make our name on being a physical football team and hitting is a component of all of our practices, so we’re definitely going to have to make some changes.”

Price said he obviously supports any measures to improve player safety, but he comes from the school of thought that if you’re going to tackle the proper way, you have to get as much live practice tackling as possible to make sure players don’t get injured because of poor technique.

“It’s a little frustrating because you take away those extra reps to teach the players the safe, secure way to tackle someone,” he said. “All coaches certainly understand why the new rules were created, but you limit the opportunities to demonstrate proper tackling technique and then you have to throw your players out there on Friday night with only a few live reps under their belt from the week of practice. I’m hoping it doesn’t bring any negative effects.”

Price said even when the Coyotes practice live tackling, they don’t bring each other to the ground, which Price said is something that can go a long way to limiting concussions.

“We always put safety first and when we are practicing live tackling, we tell the players to stay off the ground and I feel we’ve done a good job of limiting the chance of suffering any type of injury in practice,” he said. “Our biggest challenge will be adapting to the new rules on hitting, but we’ll do what we need to do to make sure we meet those guidelines.”

Pine River football coach Terry Martin said he thinks it is hard to disagree with any rule that is based on the safety of players. But he has reservations with the rule limiting the use of shoulder pads and other pads during the first week.

“I feel that in our sport the time available to prepare athletes for our first contest is already limited,” he said. “If a young athlete begins playing football in the fall he will only have a handful of practices to practice proper tackling technique in a full pad situation. The nationwide focus has recently been more effective coaching techniques in the area of tackling. Teams will now only have five contact practices before the seasons first scrimmage to practice tackling another player in pads.

“I think most of these changes will be a minor adjustment for most programs, especially the in-season regulations. I believe the significance of the rule change is the clear signaling of the changing landscape in the sport of football in regards to safety, especially concussion concerns.”

Evart coach Pat Craven said the rule changes will have an impact.

“I think sometimes we lose focus and (forget) our kids are not conditioning year-round like college athletes and professional athletes,” he said. “College programs have cut back on their two-a-day sessions and all the things that are required and not required. Sometimes people don’t realize our kids are students.

“We have a lot of kids that the first time we see them is the first day of football practice. To assume he’s in top shape and needs only x amount of practices and conditioning time and shoulder pads on and all that staff ... it is what it is and we’ll deal with what they’ve given us.”

Herald-Review sports writer John Raffel contributed to this report.