Prevention becomes a major part of the student-athlete experience
Perhaps in a perfect world, everyone’s skull would be reinforced with steel and air bags, but for now student athletes, coaches, parents and trainers are focused on preventing and mitigating the damage from concussions.
Nearly every sport has been altered in some way through rules, techniques and equipment to minimize concussions in the past five years.
Although all athletic activities have a risk of concussion – particularly contact sports such as soccer, hockey, basketball, baseball, lacrosse and wrestling – the rate in football is the highest.
A study by the Minnesota Health Department estimated about 3,000 student athletes suffered a concussion during the 2013-14 school year, and about 1,300 happened while playing football.
Many studies have shown that suffering a concussion has larger implications than previously thought.
A recent study published in the medical journal Neurology, by the Boston University School of Medicine, found that NFL players who played tackle football before the age of 12 were more likely than those who didn’t to suffer notable cognitive issues later in life.
While concussions are nearly impossible to eliminate, efforts have been made to minimize the chances of receiving one.
The Minnesota State High School League is considering new changes to its policies regarding football practices, such as limiting the number of practices per week, length of practices and contact allowed during football practices as recommended by the National Federation of State High School Associations, NFHS.
“We have had a lot of discussion about the contact days and practice restrictions,” Farmington athletic director Bill Tschida said. “It is something that we need more information on.”
It would be a challenging year to implement any changes because the 2015 football season is already being condensed.
Scheduling conflicts with TCF Bank Stadium, the site of the state playoffs, is forcing the schedule to begin a week earlier, so teams will play three games before school even starts. There won’t be time for a regularly scheduled scrimmage this summer.
With the student-athlete’s safety in mind, the MSHSL has a several protocols already in place.
If an athlete suffers a concussion, someone is supposed to test their memory function and balance and look for dozens of symptoms.
It’s law in Minnesota that if young athletes show signs of a concussion, coaches must sideline them until they can get a medical all-clear.
“That stuff that’s happening now maybe didn’t happen 10 years ago,” Tschida said. “If I’m a parent, I’m looking at (the) long-term health of a child.”
Tschida said all three of his children were three-sport athletes and never suffered a conclusion, and he said if they did, he would approach it much differently now that he would have four years ago.
“Right now it’s a very current subject in the forefront of everyone’s mind,” Tschida said. “There’s better things going on in dealing with it.”
In 2011, the Farmington High School athletic department began using Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing, a video game-like program that takes 15-20 minutes, assessing concentration, speed, reaction time and memory. ImPACT is used in high schools, colleges and at the professional level across the country.
Before the athletic season begins, the all ninth-grade student athletes take the test, which is put on file. Should a head injury occur, the athlete retakes the test to compare results.
The goal was to keep off the field kids who still suffer from the affects of a concussion because going back on the field too soon increases the damage and odds of repeating the injury.
“The idea you want to keep kids safe,” Tschida said. “This is more about their long-term health. High school activities is a small part of their life.”
It was a piece of the puzzle. ImPACT testing does nothing to protect an athlete from their initial concussion.
“You’re never going to completely eliminate concussions in a contact sport,” Tschida said. “It’s not a reality.”
In football, Farmington’s helmets are approved by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Sports Athletic Equipment.
According to a release from the committee in 2014, for concussion protection to be truly effective, actions must be taken on and off the field by student athletes, parents and coaches. They wrote that scientific evidence does not support the claim that a particular helmet brand or model is more effective in reducing the occurrence of concussive events.
“There is no magic helmet that can prevent a concussion from happening,” Tschida said. “There isn’t any perfect way to stop a concussion from happening. … They’re always trying to make things safer — changing the rules and upgrading equipment.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Foundation’s Heads Up to Parents program recommends ensuring the athlete has a properly fitted helmet, is taught proper techniques and is following the rules.
Farmington varsity wrestling coach Chad Olson, who also coaches football and played college football at Augustana, said he sees more frequent diagnoses of concussions than every before, but he attributes that to awareness more than anything.
“You’re more aware of it,” Olson said. “You’re quicker to send a kid out. There’s a whole five-day protocol for them to come back to practice.”
In football, athletes are taught better techniques, such as how to avoid tackling head first.
“If your head is down, you can’t really control where your head is,” Olson said. “If your head is up, you can see where you’re going and brace for impact.”
Tschida said football in general, not specifically in Farmington, has seen lower numbers of participation in recent years.
In 2007-2008 there were 27,626 football participants in Minnesota. In 2013-2014, there were 25,487.
According to the NFHS, there are hidden consequences of not having a deep enough roster. The fewer the numbers, the greater the exposure to repeat drills and playing time. The chances also increase for players who play multiple positions on both offense, defense and special teams.
Still, nationwide football is the most popular sport for boys. It’s still quite popular at home. Farmington Community Education youth tackle football is offered for grades first through sixth, and there are four middle school teams and six high school level teams. There is still some drop off year to year.
“I know our numbers dip a little bit, but I don’t always know why,” Olson said. “I know some of it is because they know they’re not going to play.”
Farmington often saw a large decrease in numbers from freshmen year to sophomore year, but that was due to the fact they only offered one sophomore team as opposed to two freshmen teams. Now that Farmington plays in the South Suburban Conference, which has a 10A and 10B schedule, the drop off hasn’t been as severe.
But football isn’t the only place a student athlete could get a concussion. There was a point last season that the wrestling team had more than eight wrestlers out with concussions, Olson said.
The biggest issue with wrestling is not the blow to the head, but the whiplash effect where the head snaps back. Olson said the team works on neck strengthening exercises almost every day.
This season Olson said just two wrestlers have had concussions. He attributed it to a bit of luck and the fact that he has a veteran team comprised of many juniors and seniors with better body awareness.
But athletes, coaches, parents and trainers aren’t going to rely on luck alone. It’s just another piece of the puzzle.