3 Methods for Parents to Evaluate Football Protective Base Layer Gear to Avoid the “Chink in the Armor”
It’s a brisk Friday evening and you’re huddled around teammates reviewing the last details before kickoff. You feel the excitement building as hundreds of fans cheer in the stadium. This is it – the big time! Well, it was when I was 16. When I look back on those moments, I realize today that playing football as a child helped to teach me a number of life skills such playing as part of a team and practicing sportsmanship, both in winning and losing situations.
Fast forward a few years, the Friday evenings are still brisk, but today I’m huddled on the bleachers sipping a hot cocoa with dozens of other parents cheering and supporting our children. Looking onto the field from this position feels a little different. When you are 16 years old and in the moment of the game, you rarely sit back and ask if this next hit will put me out for the season or have worse effects. Instead, you are more interested in the rush of adrenaline, competition, friendships, and being part of the big play. Yet as parents, we can’t help but be concerned about the unknowns that can accompany an impact sport.
Over the past couple of years, much attention in American Football has been around head protection and the prevention of concussions. Institutions and companies are spending countless hours and resources to improve football helmets. Even if many still debate which solution is best, the fact that we’re addressing the concern is a positive step.
But is the head the only area of concern for serious injury? Last month, a young man died from a blow to his midsection which lacerated his spleen. And it seems he was unfortunately not alone is this type of accident. What protection do our youth have against blows to vital organs below their helmet and shoulder pads?
Protecting the “Chink in the Armor”
If a player extends his arms to reach for a ball, the “chink in the armor” is exposed. The standard padding only covers a player’s chest and when the arms and hands are preoccupied with catching the ball, the player’s mid-section is unprotected. This exposed, unprotected section is often called the chink in one’s armor. Ribs, liver, kidneys, and the spleen are all vulnerable to hits from rigid shoulder pads and helmets designed to protect the wearer. So what can parents do to protect their children and remove the chink in their armor?
Many brands are now offering a range of protective base layer apparel. The pads used in the base layer tend to be lightweight and low profile. As a parent you might ask, will these pads help protect my child?
At the XRD® Impact Institute, we work with sporting goods brands to ensure they are meeting both their impact protection needs and the needs of their athletes. It is important for protective base layer garments (no matter the sport) to provide an appropriate amount of protection for their intended use while allowing full range of motion and unencumbered movement.
Football Protective Base Layer Protection Options
The challenge with American football protective base layer garments is there are no set impact standards (such as ASTM for the US or EN for Europe) to which all brands and products must comply. So to support our customers’ development efforts, we utilize the XRD Impact Institute to simulate the impacts experienced on the field and measure the impact reduction provided by these garments.
The chart below shows the impact protection of several available protective base layer shirts on the market. Each pad was tested with an impact of 45 joules. For reference, padded apparel for motorcycle protection is tested under the EN 1621-1 standard with an impact of 50 joules. After impact, we measure the force transmitted through the pad and onto the body. This force is recorded in the chart as lbs/force. The lower the lbs/force rating, the greater the impact protection offered by the material.
The Current Situation
The protective base layer shirts tested utilized a variety of materials, such as EVA and polyurethane foams, plastics, gels, and rubber, all with the intended goal of providing some level of protection. Unfortunately, the study shows some of the more commonly purchased products (represented in red and black) fell among the worst performing for impact reduction. The challenge is that many consumers (such as the parents sitting on the bleachers on a Friday night) do not know what to look for when evaluating padded compression apparel.
3 Questions to Ask to Help Select the Best Protective Base Layer Apparel
I’m often asked by fellow parents: What type of protective base layer is best? How can I better sort through the rows of options at my local sporting goods store?
The answer isn’t always easy and first depends on what type of impact you are trying to protect against. As a start, I suggest that you consider the following 3 questions when purchasing protective base layer apparel:
1. Will there be multiple impacts?
2. How big is the impact?
3. How much movement will be required during the activity?
We know most people do not have the testing equipment or research resources that we have in the XRD Impact Institute, but there are some basic techniques to use when evaluating protective base layer gear while in the store.
In-Store Testing and Evaluation Techniques for Choosing Protective Gear
1. Multiple Impacts
If you will be exposed to many repeated impacts, such as those experienced in a football game, the pad needs to keep its shape and maintain its performance. Some materials provide great protection for a few hits but then they lose their ability to protect. XRD Materials are made of special open-cell molecules that retain their ‘like new’ performance throughout repeated impacts. Use a test called Compression Set Testing to evaluate a material’s ability to maintain performance throughout its use. Check out these articles for more information about XRD open-cell molecules or Compression Set Testing.
A simple yet effective method for testing a protective pad’s ability to maintain long-term performance is to push a fingernail into the pad and see if the pad returns to its original shape. If the fingernail mark remains after a few seconds, this is an indication that the pad will diminish impact performance with repeated impacts and not provide the same level of protection from day one through the end of the season.
Obviously, different activities expose us to different levels of impact. The question is how do we know if our protective padding will be sufficient when we get hit by a 300 pound line man or if we take a spill going 40 miles per hour downhill on our bike? Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple test that the average consumer can use to verify the performance of a protective pad. In some sports, standards have been set by governing bodies in an attempt to help consumers know that the pad meets a certain performance requirement. In sports, where these standards aren’t present, it can be tricky to know whether or not the pads will protect you when you need them to.
A tip you can use to help make the selection is to become familiar with the different types of impact protection technologies, such as D3O and XRD Impact Protection, that partner with brands who want to provide superior impact protective products. Often these impact protection technologies will list on their websites or partner brand websites some information about their testing and design services.
For those parents who want to take an additional step, I welcome you to take part in an at home test I like to call the “Smart Test.”
Step 1: Purchase some “smarties” candy and get a hammer or other blunt instrument to impact the pads.
Step 2: Place the smarties on a hard flat surface, put the pad on top and then hit it with the hammer.
The Results? You can be the judge. Obviously, the more intact the smarties, the more protective. You can even up the game by trying multiple impacts. The pictures show a few different protective base layer products I tested. The most protective of this group was the G-Form knee pad with XRD Protection.
The last thing you want when trying to protect yourself is to feel like a knight in shining armor who can’t lift his arms. Unfortunately, some people believe hard, rigid pads are the best protection. This might be true if we you are protecting an armored car but if you are looking for sports protection, you need the ability to maneuver unrestricted by your padding. Read this post where we discuss how new protection technologies can be both soft and protective.
Look for flexibility in the padding. Flexibility is accomplished by the use of soft materials, hinges, or flex points in the design. It is important to ensure that protection is not sacrificed for flexibility. There are many creative designs which offer great flexibility and protection coverage. This post offers some good tips on how you can spot a design that’s engineered for great flex.
Another point to consider when looking at protective base layer gear is the weight of the pad. If a pad provides great protection but weighs you down so much that you show up late to the play, it’s pointless. Lightweight impact protection is available and one doesn’t have to carry their body weight in padding to minimize the force of a blow from an opponent.
For all of these points, the easiest test is to simply try on the pads. On a scale of 1 to 5 how would you rate the pads on:
If they don’t feel natural to wear – keep looking. The last thing you want is to buy a product that will sit in the closet all season.
Although American football and other sports can be dangerous, fortunately there are options for removing chinks in our armor which will allow us to feel the intensity of the sport and not the impact. It is important to note that not all pads are created equally; by using the tips outlined above, you have the power to better select appropriate protective base layer gear for your child’s needs.
So when the next Friday fall evening comes around, enjoy your hot cocoa with a little more pleasure. We know that our loved ones will fall, but with a little extra effort, we can do our part to help them get back up. It’s time to enjoy the game again!