Choosing a Football Helmet: 6 Tips for Best Protection

Well-chosen football helmet essential to reduce risk of injury

American Football and Helmet on the Field

When it’s time to buy a new football helmet, one of the most common questions parents and players ask is, “What’s the best concussion-proof football helmet?”

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“There isn’t one,” says Cleveland Clinic Certified Athletic Trainer Bob Gray. “Helmets don’t prevent concussions. The best protection is proper hitting, tackling and blocking technique.”

But football helmets are essential to reduce the risk of other serious injuries, including skull and facial fractures, eye injuries, penetration injuries and brain bleeding. “All football helmets do a great job of that,” says Gray.

So can you pick a “wrong” football helmet? How do you find the right one? And how do you know if it fits correctly?

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Gray offers these six tips:

  • Look for the NOCSAE seal. The National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) is the U.S. body that certifies helmets and other athletic gear as safe. Make sure “Meets NOCSAE standards” is branded or stamped on the back of the helmet you choose. And then don’t alter the helmet in any way. Adding aftermarket items such as extra padding negates NOCSAE certification.
  • Measure head circumference. Typically, a team’s athletic trainer helps players determine proper helmet size. Each helmet brand provides a sizing chart and instructions for fitting and helmet care. First, use a cloth tape to measure the athlete’s head circumference. Position the tape about an inch above the eyebrows. With this measurement, select the proper helmet size. If your measurement is between sizes, choose the smaller one. The helmet’s front edge should be about an inch higher than the eyebrows.
  • Next, put on the helmet to ensure a proper fit. Grip the bottom of the helmet with your thumbs, put your index fingers in the earholes and pull the helmet into position. The fit should be tight but comfortable — more snug than a biking or batting helmet. When the helmet is tugged laterally, cheek pads shouldn’t slide and forehead skin should move with the helmet. When pulled vertically, the helmet shouldn’t sag onto the player’s nose. Hand pressure on top of the helmet should feel evenly distributed, not concentrated in front or back. It’s important that someone with experience fitting helmets oversees this process. Younger athletes should wear youth helmets, not adult ones, which can be too heavy and become a potential hazard.
  • Choose a model that feels right. Not all helmet brands and styles fit every head. That’s why school and recreational teams usually offer players a choice of models. Various helmet brands you’d buy in a sporting goods store are made of standardized materials, but their designs make each a little different. It’s like choosing running shoes:
    • Pick the style that fits and feels the most comfortable. Pump up the padding. To provide the best protection, some helmet padding requires air inflation. While wearing your helmet, have an athletic trainer pump air into the cushioning to customize the shape and density for your head. Have the air pressure checked each week to make sure the padding hasn’t flattened.
    • Fit first, strap second. If you rely on the chinstrap to squeeze the helmet to your head, your helmet doesn’t fit. A chinstrap should not be a tightening device. The helmet should feel snug and secure even without fastening the strap.
    • Recondition before reuse. Don’t wear a used helmet unless a NOCSAE-licensed reconditioner has recertified it. A seal inside the helmet will tell you. Teams usually send helmets for reconditioning and recertification every year or two.

When it comes to sports safety,  never cut corners. Taking the time to choose a well-fitted football helmet is worth the effort and can help prevent serious injuries.

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