While in a perfect world, every football program in the country would hire a certified equipment manager to handle the day-to-day aspects of equipment management, the reality is that many football programs can’t afford a full-time equipment manager. This is especially true from high school all the way through NCAA Division II. Even at the FBS level, equipment managers are shared across sports.
Because of this, it’s important for football coaches, in particular, to understand how to properly fit a football helmet. After all, equipment managers agree, a properly-fitted football helmet is incredibly important to protecting football players. The helmet is the first line of defense for a player’s head, and a properly-fitted helmet can decrease the likelihood of a head injury.
“The first thing I did in fitting our helmets was set out our different helmets on the counter and then talk it through with the players,” says Ryan Grooms, former Head Football Equipment Manager for the University of Notre Dame, a title he held through the 2017 football season. Grooms is now Vice President of Elite Accounts in the Midwest for VICIS. “To me, the most protective helmet is the one that fits them the best, because that’s the one that’s going to minimize any movement inside the helmet. That can be tricky, because a player can change things like hair style during the season, and you have to be able to change the helmet to maintain the fit.”
Proper helmet fitting must incorporate several important guidelines, no matter the brand of helmet the player wears.
- The helmet shouldn’t move on the head. It should sit right above the brow-line, covering up the ear-holes, where the earholes on the helmet line up with the players’ actual ears. The back of the helmet should cover the occipital bone, which is that bone that sort of juts out at the base of your skull on the back of your head.
“If you put your finger right above the eyebrow, you want the helmet to sit at that level,” says Grooms. “You want to make sure the occipital bone in the back has protection and coverage. You want the ear holes to line up with the ears.”
- Helmets fit differently based on the shape of a player’s head and the amount/thickness of a player’s hair. If players make major hairstyle changes, they must be refit for their helmets.
“I tell my players to lock their neck,” he says. “Don’t turn your head up, down, sideways. Then I try to rotate the helmet down. I literally try to push it to the bridge of the nose. You’re looking for the forehead skin to kind of move. If it starts to slide, then it’s not a good fit and adjustments must be made. I think it’s good to either have the players fit helmets right after a shower or spray their hair with a spray bottle because that simulates sweat. Those are good techniques to practice because the player isn’t out there with dry hair when he’s playing football games.
“If you’ve got a player who has locks or braids, and then just goes to a fade, or if you’ve got a guy with a long pony tail and then goes to a flat-top, you have to be aware of it. It takes less than a minute to grab his helmet and make sure that everything still fits the same.”
- Check the cheek pads to make sure they are not squishing the player’s face and check for appropriate tightness.
“I make the player leave the helmet on for a couple minutes after the fitting process,” he says. “When he takes it off, I want to look at his forehead to make sure it looks right. If the skin is light red, that’s ok, but if it’s really red, then the helmet is too tight.”
- The chin strap must be adjusted for a secure fit and be centered on the player’s chin. It should fit snuggly.
“The helmet should fit without the chin strap,” says Grooms. “The chinstrap is for security. I’m not saying you could ever go play a game without a chin strap because your helmet would fly off. But as far as the fit and everything else I’ve already talked about, you want to be able to fit the helmet with the chinstrap unbuckled.
“To fit the chinstrap, I have the athlete hold the chinstrap cup with one finger right in the middle of his chin to make sure it’s lined up and centered. I start with the high point. I adjust both sides so it’s fitting evenly and laying under his lips, covering his chin. You want to find the chin cup that fits them the best. Then after that, I adjust the two low-point hookups so the strap is snug.
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“If it’s a brand-new leather chin strap, and you’re out there in August, those can stretch a bit. I always make the athlete aware of that. Then I go through and check them after day one and day two, after that 85-degree sweat. We just make sure that it stays snug, and make those points tight, high and low. That’s what they are there for, to keep the helmet on the head.”
Those are just the basic principles. A properly fitted helmet should never just come off unless it’s pulled off. Even then, it should be a fairly strong pull to get it off of a player’s head. Helmets should never pop off accidentally.
“Safety’s the No. 1 goal, and I’ve always said it,” says Grooms. “First and foremost, our job is 100 percent safety. Making the player look good comes second. It’s our job to protect those players, keep them safe and outfit them in the best equipment possible.”
This article was written by Paul Markgraff, managing editor of AFCA Magazine and AFCA Insider. Follow him on Twitter at Football Coach Daily.