With Wednesday’s first day of practice for fall sports across Montgomery County Public Schools comes the return of a prevalent issue that has swept the sporting world more intensely in recent years: Concussions.
A concussion is a traumatic brain injury that alters the way a person’s brain functions, according to the Mayo Clinic. And although most concussions are a result of a hit to the head — which is why people associate them most with contact sports like football — they are actually caused by the brain hitting the skull and can be sustained by a mere jolt to the head or upper body.
As more studies reveal — and former professional athletes speak out about — the possible long-term effects of the traumatic brain injuries, there has been a strong push to promote concussion prevention. But the truth is, there’s no way to avoid concussions completely. The best way to deal with surfacing data and the fear that’s accompanied it, is education, coaches agreed.
A study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine revealed the number of concussions among high school athletes doubled from 2005-12 but some researchers attribute that increase to more awareness.
A major danger to a concussed individual is second impact syndrome, which occurs when a successive concussion is sustained before symptoms to the original have subsided. And the problem with trying to prevent this potentially fatal occurrence is there’s no foolproof test to confirm when an athlete is ready to return to the playing field or court.
“If you break your ankle, you X-ray it and you X-ray it until it’s not broken anymore,” Walt Whitman High School football coach Jim Kuhn said. “There’s no test to see if your brain has a concussion.”
In 2013 MCPS began funding mandatory baseline concussion testing — these assess an athlete’s balance and brain function — for all student-athletes in an effort to reduce the risk of athletes returning to competition too quickly.
Another way for the county to support student-athletes’ safety is through equipment, Richard Montgomery football coach Josh Klotz said. Technology is constantly changing and new and more effective equipment is always surfacing. Thanks to the support of its boosters Richard Montgomery football received more than $5,000 in new helmets this fall. It’s possible headgear might become a requirement on the soccer field at some point as well, coaches said.
Last year the National Federation of State High School Association partnered with USA Football to endorse the organization’s Heads Up Football program, which is geared toward promoting tackling mechanics that aim to reduce helmet contact. While the push is a high profile one, Klotz said these techniques have been taught by Montgomery County coaches for five to seven years under a different moniker. And it’s not just because they’re safer, they’re actually better, he said.
Klotz said it’s also reached the youth organizations which is extremely important. The key to maintaining the proper technique — not leading with the head, more shoulder to body contact — is repetition, coaches agreed. If bad habits are there, they can be broken, Kuhn said.
Kuhn and Klotz agreed that the majority of their athletes are first-time football players when they enter ninth grade so they start with a clean slate but even with experienced players they stressed the importance of taking the time to break down the tackle and work on strengthening the individual aspects that go into creating one single hit.
Coaches in all sports have been encouraged to work with athletes on upper body, shoulder and neck strength to minimize neck movement during collisions and tackles.
The prospect of injury can be unnerving but playing timidly might actually increase the chances of enduring one, Clarksburg High girls’ soccer coach Christina Mann said. With all the recent attention paid to head injuries, soccer has come under recent scrutiny given that forcefully making contact with one’s head on the ball is actually a major component of the game.
Some organizations have banned the act of heading the ball at the younger levels, which Clarksburg High girls’ soccer coach said is understandable. But rather than avoiding a part of the game that’s both instinctive and unlikely to go away, Mann said it’s important to make sure it’s done right — players can practice with smaller or lighter soccer balls.
“Taking heading out of soccer could take away some players’ best quality,” said Washington Spirit midfielder Tori Huster. “Look at Abby Wambach. How many goals has she scored with her head? One thing that’s really important is to teach kids how to actually head the ball. There’s a technique to it and a place on the head that if you hit it there nine times out of 10 you will feel fine. There’s so much knowledge of concussions coming out, it’s also important to have knowledge of the right technique.”