What is the Safest Youth Football Helmet

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

safest youth football helmetNOCSAE 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.

My Recommendations

  • 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.









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19 Comments on “What is the Safest Youth Football Helmet”

  1. Hey Skip!
    Thanks for being on top of this situation, and doing the research we all should be doing on behalf of our youngsters.
    When my son played (30 years ago) I don’t remember anyone mentioning any type of certification for helmets or even a good fit for that matter.
    Things have certainly changed, and we need this information to be freely available.

  2. Very informative article. I really liked the common sense part, but never put much thought into what really goes into making sure helmets are as safe as possible. I just see it looks good with the padding and all and it fits good. Now knowing what all goes into it, actually makes me feel better when my son puts his hockey helmet on. Knowing that it is more than some plastic and padding somebody put together.

    1. The problem is not a lack of standards, it’s a lack of enforcement in some areas. Unfortunately, helmets have a “shelf life” and need to be recertified periodically. And it is up to all of us to make sure that is happening. When I was playing, we just went in every season, got fitted with the same helmets we used the year before, no idea if they were certified/recertified or not. They probably were when I was in college, but I would question whether or not they were in high school or before.

  3. Hi Skip! This information is so valuable. I have an 11 year old son who plays football, and we’ve always gotten our helmet from the team, and taken for granted the details were taken care of. After hearing your story and experience with 6 concussions, I think I should be more careful to inspect the helmet we are assigned. Thanks for introducing this to me!

    1. Fortunately, new helmets are generally good to go, just find the sticker and it should be good.  But most teams just reuse helmets and only replace a few broken ones every season.  Whether or not a helmet is recertified, that is where I see the biggest issue, are they recertified periodically or not at all.  That’s where that term “it takes a village” comes in–league administrators, Coaches, and Parents all have to take the lead.  

  4. I’m glad you posted this. Many of the children who play football don’t use proper equipment (I’m not referring to teams). Good equipment is essential in our children playing sports.

    Thanks for this.


    1. Unfortunately Lane, I think a lot of teams that don’t use proper equipment more out of ignorance than anything else. They just don’t know what they don’t know. My hope is to help bring that and many other aspects of the game to light, particularly for young parents who may not have any real knowledge of the game. It can be a scary proposition for a parent to let a child play football knowing all we know today.

  5. Hey Skip
    Great post and I also love your post on should girls play football 🙂
    I wish I was young again as I reckon I could have been a pretty good player lol
    Safety is paramount and thank goodness manufacturers are really doing a good job with this
    Keep up the awesome sharing thank you

    1. Thanks Vicki! So many different aspects to playing the game safe, but the helmet seems to be the least understood, the highest profile, and the easiest to cull out if you take the time to do the research. But manufacturers are really stepping up right now more than ever. And I think much of that is due to the public eye being so focused on them.

  6. Hey Skip 🙂 I remember when we didn’t wear helmets in football or hockey either. These contact sports scan be extremely dangerous. I think it’s very important for kids to wear helmets that are approved and tested to be protected. It’s horrible to see anyone, especially kids who get hurt. Proper fit is vital to the health of the player as well. Hats off to all the coaches and parents who are behind this!

    1. Absolutely Rob. The realization that concussions in particular make this a far more dangerous sport than ever thought before really demands that Coaches and Parents get on the same side on behalf of our young players–the SAFE side. And they are doing it in droves.

  7. Hi Skip,

    I really enjoyed the article as with any high impact sport, safety and personal protect are always difficult subjects to cover with so many opinions and options.

    In your opinion, how would one check the fit of the helmet. In my experience with motorcycle helmets, one usually checks that the fit is “sung” by the contact of the helmet with the cheek in that the skin must make firm contact with the inner padding of a “snug fit” to be achieved. What rule would you apply when checking the “snug fit” of a football helmet?

    Thanks again for a great article.

    1. The rules are the same for a football helmet.  Luckily, manufacturers generally supply replaceable, and in many cases now, inflatable pads to achieve snugness.  Also, a football helmet comes with the added measure of a chin strap to hold the helmet in place throughout a play and the game or practice.  Once all of these measure have been applied, the final check is to make sure the chin strap is centered on the chin, no visible gaps between the player’s head on the padding from the helmet, and a final tug on the face mask to ensure the snug fit.

      Also, all helmets come with proper fitting instructions from the manufacturer.  And if the helmet is used–AND RECERTIFIED by NOCSAE–you can go online and find fitting instructions from the manufacturer also.

  8. Skip,
    It is crucial for every football player to wear a safety helmet while on the field. It is extremely sad how many players have suffered from concussions due to their helmet not fitting properly. That you for taking the time to bring awareness to the situation and offer applicable advice about how to rectify the situation.

    1. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a concussion-proof helmet.  However, just a few simple steps, as I mentioned, can exponentially reduce the possibility of head and neck injuries.  The problem is that many people just don’t know, and in the case of coaches specifically many don’t adhere to these simple rules or worse yet don’t believe there is really a problem.  My goal is to make sure that the people who care the most about our kids–their PARENTS–do know the risks and how to reduce those risks.  

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