Before the first Pop Warner football practice this season, coaches had to go through their own training drills. This year, all coaches were required to take an online course and attend a seminar on concussions and related symptoms.
The training is part of increased vigilance about head injuries. Players that suffering a concussion can no longer return to action without doctor approval.
This is a significant change from the way youth football has operated for generations, in which coaches sent players back into games if the child and parent said everything was fine.
"It used to be if you got knocked out, you had a concussion," said Kerry Harris, athletic director for the Redondo Beach Pop Warner group of teams. "Now they're saying you can get a concussion or whiplash from even a subtle hit."
Anyone who suffered a concussion cannot play again until a week after concussion symptoms disappear. Typically, Harris said, a boy who has a minor concussion can return a week later. If he had memory loss, the return time is usually two weeks. If he was knocked unconscious, the boy can expect to sit out for three weeks, Harris said.
"This year especially we're going to extra lengths to ensure safety," Harris said. So if they gave prolonged headache it's a week after the headache ceases, he explained.
Coaches and organizers said serious concussions are rare at the youth level because the kids aren't developed enough to hit hard, but they agreed that a more cautious approach of dealing with head injuries is better than how it used to be done.
Players bodies are still developing at the Pop Warner level and so are their brains. Vernon Williams, a neurologist and an expert on sports-related concussions, said the new rules outmaneuver a young athlete's desire to get back on the field quickly.
"Athletes under-report symptoms, even the young athlete," Williams said. "Our culture is so strong, even at ages 8, 9 and 10. They know what it means to be tough, hang in there, shake it off, walk it off. They know about the rewards of being that kind of athlete.
"So that gladiator mentality gets ingrained in our athletes at a very early age," Willams said. "There's a lot that's good about that. But the problem is that it can be detrimental when it comes to concussions because the brain is different than any other body part. You can't walk off a concussion."
Coaches and organizers said one of the most important lessons they learned from the concussion awareness training was that a boy can sustain a head injury, or whiplash, from a hit to the jaw or backside as easily as a direct hit to the head.
Children as young as 7 strap on a helmet to play football at the Pop Warner level. The divisions are divided by age groups and weight. Heavier players move up to the next level so there isn't a large weight disparity between players on the field. The Midget Division is the oldest division in Pop Warner, made up of mostly 13-year-olds.
Although youth football has been around for generations in Redondo Beach, the league has been affiliated with Pop Warner for only two years. Coaches are certified through USA Football, the national governing body for the amateur and youth level. The NFL and NFL Players Assn. started USA Football in 2002 in an attempt to unite the standards of youth football. Although Pop Warner is the most recognizable youth football organization, it only covers about 10 percent of all the leagues in the nation. The vast majority of leagues, about 85 percent, are independent.
Redondo Beach Pop Warner is part of the Southern California Conference, which includes Torrance, Watts, Palos Verdes and Crenshaw.
The NFL as well as college and high school football is adopting more restrictive rules for allowing a player who suffered a head injury from returning to action. Youth football organizers say their level of football is the safest, but it makes sense to be more cautious.
"It's about time we stepped up and took more safety precautions on these issues where we have more people involved to help us monitor our kids while we're on the field," said Conrad Rubio, president of Redondo Beach Pop Warner Football.
Rubio said serious head injuries are rare in Pop Warner. Last year, "three or four" kids were brought to the emergency room as a precaution for head trauma sustained during games, Rubio said.
"We're looking forward to them having a long and joyful football career," Rubio said. "They get injured now and we don't pay attention to it, what could happen three, four years from now? You don't know. But if you're monitoring it, if you're paying more attention to what's going on, chances are they're going to have a much longer football career and their health is going to be good."
Rubio said the boys are taught proper tackling techniques, which minimize risk of head injury, and the helmets are regularly inspected to ensure there are no cracks that could jeopardize safety.
The view of the certified athletic trainers who work the sidelines and provide on-field medical care during Pop Warner games is that the new, more cautious approach of treating head injuries is a very good thing. In fact, the concussion awareness course and seminar that coaches were required to take this year was probably overdue.
"Some coaches needed it," said Ashlee Withington, who worked the Pop Warner games between Redondo Beach and Palos Verdes in Palos Verdes last month.
Some injuries, like a twisted knee, are easy to diagnose. Head injuries, especially head injuries that aren't immediately severe, are harder to see, especially for those without medical training, said Kamesha Nabors, who worked the Pop Warner games at Redondo Union Stadium a week ago.
"When they're young, they're susceptible to slight hits. They're still developing," Nabors said.
For more information about the risks of concussions, read this companion story.