Monday, November 5, 2012
(My friend Rick Hurst has started a publication The Real Deal, a sports related magazine for the northern suburbs of Detroit. I contributed the following article for their October issue, it might become a regular monthly feature.)
A Coach’s View of Concussions
Concussions have always been a part of sports, but only until recently has it become a media story that won’t go away, and for good reason. For years the common reaction to concussions by coaches and trainers was to tell a player he had “a dinger,” or had his “bell rung.” A player was taken out of the game, often administered some sort of ammonia to help him breathe and get his senses back, and allowed back in the game. Concussions were not taken seriously. Those days are long gone.
Concussions are now a big story for a variety of reasons: concussions on all levels of football; concussions in sports other than football, including girls sports; concussions stemming from constant hitting (like linemen in football); and concussions from one strong hit (like a base runner sliding head first into home plate). Probably the most glaring issue has been the long-term affects of concussions, not only on professional football players but also youngsters playing youth sports.
I have been very lucky the last fifteen years to coach football at Division III John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio, a school that has as good as a medical support staff as any college on any level in the country. Because of our relationship with the near by Cleveland Clinic, our athletes are often treated for injury by the same doctors who treat Cleveland’s professional athletes. Our in house training staff is filled with seasoned veterans who are also up to date on the latest methods in injury prevention and treatment.
Don McPhillips, our head trainer and a veteran of over twenty-five years in the sports medicine field, has seen it all. “We are much better now at managing concussions, making sure players don’t come back too soon. But one thing we haven’t improved upon is avoiding concussions.” If you ask McPhillips what needs to be done, he pauses and then states the obvious, “Until players quit using their heads as weapons, we will always have concussions.”
And that is the dark secret of sports, especially sports like football and hockey: players lowering their heads, leading with the top of their helmets.
In football it wasn’t always like that. Back in the 30’s, 40’, and 50’s, when helmets were made of hard leather or cheap plastic with no faceguards or masks, players did not lead with their heads first to tackle, block, or run. They were taught to block and tackle with their arms and shoulders, and that is what they did. Making the helmets stronger and adding facemasks made the game safer, but very soon that hard plastic sitting on player’s heads became a weapon itself, and that continues today.
Throughout the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, the designs of new helmets were often advertised as a cure for concussions. As hard plastic replaced leather on the outside, a variety of changes happened inside the helmet. Players went from wearing suspension helmets, where the skull was literally suspended inside of the plastic shell with a spacing of air meant to absorb any blows to the head. That airspace would be replaced with a variety of padding material, then by water pockets, then by air packets that can be blown up like a bike tire. As that went on inside of the helmet, the outside became harder yet lighter through advances in plastics. But instead of offering more protection, these advances in helmet technology have just made the helmet more of a weapon.
And it just isn’t a football problem. Since helmets became mandatory in ice hockey the same thing has happened, a rise in concussions because players are using their heads to guide their bodies to check players. Same thing in baseball, when helmets became mandatory on all runners on base, more players started sliding head first into bases.
There is no such thing as a concussion proof helmet in any sport. Helmets in any sport will protect an athlete to a certain extent, but are not 100% safe.
And concussions are also increasing in sports that don’t require helmets like soccer and basketball. We are not sure if more are happening, or more are being reported than in the past.
There are several things high school athletes and their parents need to do in regards to concussions. First, each student athlete needs to track concussions over the length of a complete playing career. For example, in football from the first time a kid puts pads on in CYO or Pop Warner all the way through high school and college to the pro leagues. Also any head injuries playing any other sport should be tracked also. Too often the history of concussions for a player starts over as he moves up the ladder or switches sports.
Another consideration is to limit on the amount of concussions a player can have over a certain amount of time, or over the course of a career. And if a player has to hang it up after so many concussions, so be it. That has already happened to some players voluntarily on the high school and college level, and if the NFL, NHL, and other pro leagues really care about the long-range health of its players it has to happen on that level too.
Parents must be sure that their student athletes are wearing the proper equipment at all times, and that is not just to help prevent concussions. Too often a player will discard a pad or other piece of equipment because he or she will feel faster or more athletic without it. Mouthpieces should be worn in every competitive sport, and if a player chews on it then it should be replaced on a regular basis.
Coaches in all sports must make sure they teach their players to play their games the proper and safest way. And I really think for the most part that is being done, but as long as young players see their pro sports heroes on TV tackling, checking, or sliding headfirst I doubt much will change.
(Greg Cielec is both a college football coach and a freelance writer. He is the author of the novels My Cleveland Story and Home and Away Games. Check out his work at www.gregcielec.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org).