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Guest Post: Concussions in Sports

2013 March 1

By Caroline Boger

The first person I think about when I reflect on my childhood is Molly Chenot. Molly and I grew up on the same street and were brought together through our mutual love of soccer. At age 11, soccer became our reason for existence when we were hand chosen by the local high school soccer coach to be on his varsity team by the time we entered high school. Our relationship blossomed as we played together for seven straight years. Every single day of our lives was spent together at either a soccer practice or game.

Throughout the years of dedication to soccer Molly became the victim of several concussions. Her most serious one occurred during our senior year of high school in the state championship when we were second in the nation and undefeated after 19 games. When we were tied in the second half, both Molly and a girl on the opposing team went up for a header, which resulted in them colliding. The day ended with our first and only loss of the season as well as Molly’s last soccer game. Due to Molly’s extensive head injuries, she was unable to ever play soccer again.

Contrary to popular belief, a concussion is not a bruise to the brain caused by hitting a hard surface. A concussion is caused by “the shaking of the brain inside the skull that changes the alertness of the injured person” (Cantu & Hyman, 2012, p. 2). The level of  “changes” fluctuate depending on each instance and can be anywhere from mild to profound. These kinds of changes are symptoms such as confusion, blurred vision, headaches, fatigue, memory loss, nausea and, sometimes, unconsciousness. “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention almost four million sports- and recreation-related concussions are recognized every year, with many times that number occurring but going unrecognized” (Cantu & Hyman, 2012, p. 2).

Now more complications are arising and becoming more prevalent after the original concussion occurs. Problems such as post-concussion syndrome, second impact syndrome and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) occur after the initial blow to the head and can cause serious damage if not enough time is taken off before returning to their sport of choice. Sometimes injuries result in being unable to participate in any form of physical activity, mental problems, or even death. Luckily sports-related head injuries have received significantly more attention over the past few years, especially when is comes to cases involving young athletes.

In “Concussions and Our Kids” authors Dr. Robert Cantu and Mark Hyman dedicate themselves to the subject of head injuries that occur in youth sports. Throughout his lifetime, Cantu has become a concussion expert. He has treated numerous patients who have experienced brain trauma, many of them athletes. Through research and the participation of medical and athletic committees, Cantu believes that sporting rules and equipment need to be modified in order to prevent concussions from occurring. Cantu mainly focuses on sports and injuries that occur at a youth level but he also makes suggestions for athletes that are playing at a collegiate and professional status. Two of the main reforms that relate specifically towards children are that tackling during football and heading the ball during soccer should be banned until the age of fourteen.

A red flag should appear when professional football players and their families are informing the media that they would not allow their own children to play tackle football at a young age. When asked about concussions in football, Carolina Panthers fullback Brad Hoover stated, “If you’re worried about concussions, you’re in the wrong business (The Associated Press, 2009).” Jeff Saturday, Indianapolis Colts center, even stated that he would never let his son play youth football because it is too dangerous (Cantu & Hyman, 2012, p. 145). Football is one of the roughest sports out there. That is one of the reasons football is so appealing to young people, but to have tackling before the age of fourteen is unsafe. Kids who are not fourteen are more vulnerable to injury because they are not yet physically mature; they have weak necks, immature musculature, and brains that are still developing (Cantu & Hyman, 2012, p. 29).

Some would argue that children who are not exposed to tackling at a young age would be at a disadvantage when moving on to higher levels of play. If all football programs enforce this rule, then every football participant would be at the same stage, at an identical age and learn how to tackle at similar rates. Most importantly, by the age of fourteen most kids would have developed neck and body strength as well as a more matured brain (Cantu & Hyman, 2012, p.145).

If implementing the “no tackling before fourteen” rule is not an option, then it is imperative that coaches teach their players the correct form to use when tackling from the beginning. This way, players can practice these exercises so that the safest method of tackling is being performed. Not only is that crucial, but also when coaches are able to control the physicality used in practice environments, they need to try to avoid situations where head trauma could be an end result. Contact is inevitable during actual games against opponents so coaches should think of other ways to use their practice time. This way coaches can prevent any more head injuries from occurring but still teach their players how to be successful during game time.

Another argument is that tackling is not the problem but it is the equipment that needs to be revised. Football players, who play when tackling is allowed during the game, are required to wear a set of pads as well as a helmet. Recently there has been research to improve the football helmet in hopes to avoid concussion during play. Regrettably the researchers have been unsuccessful. For example Cantu (2012) talks about an incident when T.J. Cooney who played football for Catholic University went out and bought the most expensive and exclusive helmet available to him. During his first practice, Cooney wore the helmet and got a concussion. He later stated, “Ironically, the worst concussion of my life happened when I was wearing the best helmet out there” (Cantu, 2012, p. 148).

The second recommendation that Cantu makes is that heading the ball during soccer should also be banned until the age of fourteen. Being a soccer player myself, I know that heading is a vital part to a soccer player’s career. A great soccer player needs to know and be proficient in tracking the ball in the air and understand what part of the head to use when directing its location. I also know that the only way to get good at that is by practicing. At very young ages soccer players are required during practice to hit the ball with their heads countless times during every session. Obviously hitting your head repetitively at such a high rate cannot be healthy for brain development. Cantu discusses that in a few programs they have not yet banned heading all together but instead have simply “discouraged” it in ages under ten (Cantu, 2012, p. 41).

Many times heading is unavoidable when a soccer ball is coming directly toward you, so I believe that it is important to teach young kids how to react in these types of situations as another way to avoid injury. Coaches could potentially ease their players into the right tactics to head the ball so that soccer players can familiarize how to head the ball properly over a longer period of time. In order to do that, soccer clubs and organizations need to ensure that the coaches that they are providing for kids are taught themselves how to properly teach heading to younger generations.

Unfortunately, I have seen what can happen as a result of getting one too many concussions due to collisions in the air. There is headgear available to soccer players who wish to wear it but just like T.J. Cooney’s story, Molly Chenot was wearing that headgear when she played in the game that ended her athletic career forever. Cantu truly believes that if heading were banned from soccer all together far less head injuries would actually occur (Cantu & Hyman, 2012, p. 40). “In 2010 female soccer players suffered 25,953 concussions, and male players, 20,247 concussions (Cantu & Hyman, 2012, p. 40).” With that statistic in mind, I agree with Cantu in the fact that heading should be banned from a safety standpoint but without heading in soccer the game would change too drastically. Heading is such a fundamental part to the game of soccer that I do not see the rules changing in that direction any time soon.

There should be a balance when deciding what to change and what traditions should stand when it comes to sports. Dr. Robert Cantu and Mark Hyman provide exceptional ideas in their book for improvements in many popular sports that guarantee a higher rate of safety when it comes to head injuries, while relatively keeping the original rules in tact. More importantly the authors provide coaches, athletes and parents a resource to refer to when a concussion does take place. The increase of recreational sports activities has made the incidents of sports related head and brain injuries rise continuously.

The subject of concussions will continue to surface as long as athletes at the high school, college, and professional levels continue to die while showing signs of CTE during scans due to the experiences of too many concussions. It is beneficial for coaches, athletes and parents of all sports to understand the symptoms, causes and consequences of concussions to avoid serious brain damage. As more research is conducted hopefully concussions will be better understood and more efficient preventative measures will be produced. With the help of new technology, proper education about risk factors and symptoms, prevention, the options for safety and security athletes will utilize every outlet available to them in order to make sure that when a concussion does take place, they will effectively know how to handle the situation.

Caroline Boger is a senior Communication Studies major at Clemson University. She has held multiple internships with a variety of different organizations such as The North Carolina Arboretum, Crawford Strategy, Oconee County Chamber of Commerce and Seneca City Hall. She is graduating in May 2013 and is seeking to find a job in the public relations, marketing or branding realm. Caroline is somehow still a fan of the Dallas Cowboys, would die without coffee and is an avid believer that everyone should live every week like its shark week. Follow her on Twitter @carolineboger

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