I’ve got news for you, the safest youth football helmet is….complicated, not really.
The good news is that with the recent realization of the potentially devastating effects of concussions that manufacturers are laser focused on producing the best and safest helmets possible. The great divide that once existed between the best and worst helmets is minuscule. Hence, finding a quality, safe helmet is easier and more affordable than ever.
To be clear up front–there is no concussion-proof helmet. And helmets are only a piece of the formula to reducing concussions.
Of course, it’s impossible to put a price tag on a child’s safety, I know it is for me. But the fact is that football is by definition a collision sport and safe equipment is key….and can be expensive, at least relative to other sports.
While my research to find the safest helmet was pretty extensive, the answer actually turned out to be pretty simple. And the answer usually is when you know what the question is up front.
The question: What is the safest youth football helmet? The answer…
The One That Fits
All experts agree that this one factor can significantly reduce the risk of concussions. So this one factor is huge! It is the most overlooked and the easiest to fix. While it is recommended that a Coach or specialist actually fits the helmet, the basics are common sense.
None of the fancy new plastics, the special padding, the “air it up” perfect fits, the special chin straps, and the perfect face masks matter if the helmet doesn’t fit properly. Each manufacturer provides fitting instructions based on the style of helmet they produce.
But the basics are that the helmet should be snug and comfortable. Beyond that, the player needs to have optimum visibility, which can only be determined by the player. These 2 factors alone require that a player tries on at least 2-3 different helmets and is fitted by a Coach, Trainer, or someone certified by the manufacturer.
The One Certified/Recertified By NOCSAE
The NOCSAE, National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, is the sole source for certification of football helmets. Other organizations are out there, some even attaching their own ratings of specific helmets, but only the NOCSAE is nationally recognized.
The NOCSAE was established in 1969 after a devastating 1968 football season that saw 32 fatal brain injury deaths, the highest since 1931 when tracking began. It is a non-profit organization whose sole purpose is to establish safety standards for athletic equipment, with a laser focus on football, lacrosse, and baseball helmets. 1990 was the first season since 1931 that recorded ZERO Fatal Brain Injury deaths, largely due to this organization.
You can click here to read through NOCSAE’s FAQ page, it is very informative.
The One That Meets NOCSAE Standards
NOCSAE will only certify a helmet that does not exceed a 1200 Severity Index (SI) in their extensive testing regimes, creating a pass or fail certification system. They have found that any SI less than 1200 produces no measurable difference in protecting the player. Hence, an SI of 400 is no better than an SI of 1200, so you have the cutoff of a 1200 SI.
Further, the NOCSAE recommends that helmets be recertified periodically, though they provide no specific periods–that is handled locally. Some organizations recertify every year, some every 2 years. Unfortunately, compliance with NOCSAE recommendations are not mandatory.
The One You Have Thoroughly Checked
Common sense also matters. If you look at a helmet, CURRENT sticker or not, and the helmet is cracked, broken, or looks like it’s structural integrity could be compromised–don’t use it! Not to say it won’t get beat up during the season, but you have to make sure it is sound up front.
Just because it’s brother Johnny’s old helmet and it worked for him, doesn’t mean it’s safe, also doesn’t mean it’s not. Get it recertified. Just know that helmets degrade, even manufacturers will give you a limit on how long a helmet can be used, generally 5-10 years max and only with annual recertifications.
Never pass up an opportunity to apply COMMON SENSE. Look at the helmet, if it doesn’t look right, looks pretty beat up, ask yourself if it’s worth the risk.
- Make sure the helmet fits properly
- Ensure the helmet is NOCSAE certified/recertified, whether provided by the team or you.
- Conduct a visual check of the helmet prior to the season and weekly throughout the season
My Final Thoughts
In my career I have personally broken 2 helmets–1 down a center seam and 1 from a hole drilled for the facemask, probably already had a crack started; both were literally split in half and held together by the padding inside the helmet after the play. As a player, I never really paid that much attention, just assumed a helmet was a helmet….obviously. I also experienced 6 separate concussions that I can remember, lucky so far regarding repercussions.
Things are different now. With the realization of the devastating effects of concussions and head/neck injuries in general, the public needs to know the sport is safe. Unfortunately, the science is way behind our need for information.
People look at helmets as the way to eliminating concussions–not true. A safe helmet is only part of the equation, proper coaching, and parental involvement are also key elements, elements I have discussed before and will cover again.
Let me reiterate here–NO HELMET IS CONCUSSION PROOF.
The NOCSAE does not have an official recommendation timeline for periodic recertifications, but I will tell you that my grandsons will get their helmets certified or recertified for each season they play, no questions asked.