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Concussions & Lacrosse: A Growing Concern

Tim Tebow on the receiving end of a concussion.

Photo courtesy Momsteam.com

Only a few shorts years ago concussions in sports like football and lacrosse were almost viewed as a badge of honor.  Guys and girls who could take a serious blow to the head but keep playing were seen as the “tough players” on a team, and because of this, everyone else was expected to tough it out and keep playing.  Concussions were par for the course and I can remember guys on my high school’s football team (in late 90s) saying that soccer (the sport I played) wasn’t a real sport because there weren’t enough concussions.  Seriously.

Over the past decade or more though, the general perspective on concussions has definitely changed.  Whereas players used to only come off the field if they couldn’t perform after suffering a concussion (and even then it didn’t always happen), now players are much more likely to be pulled off the field by their coaches if it even looks like they could have a concussion.  And I can’t argue with this approach one bit.

Concussions are dangerous, that much we do know.  But beyond that, there are still a ton of questions that need to be answered.  So playing it safe makes a lot of sense, but concussion awareness can’t stop with recognizing symptoms and applying treatment.  It has to go a step further with prevention, and that comes from better coaching.  Better coaching can come in a lot of different forms, but I will outline the major concepts behind this approach below.

The first aspect of better coaching is to make the players aware of concussions.  This is basic education level stuff.  All of the guys playing lacrosse, football, hockey and a number of other sports already know about concussions, in that they exist.  But I think a lot of coaches would be surprised to learn that their players don’t really know what a concussion is exactly, and that they don’t know how to recognize that they, or a teammate, may have just suffered one.  So education is important.  Coaches need to know what a concussion is and how to spot them, but they also need to educate their players.  As the team’s leaders, this is their responsibility.

The next step of concussion education comes with training. Coaches in all sports should be teaching their kids how to play the games the right way, and this doesn’t just circle around winning.  There is a legal way to hit someone, and there is an illegal way that uses or targets the head.  The illegal way may be more likely to cause a turnover because it will knock the other player out more often, but it stinks of a lack of a character, and isn’t that what athletics are all about?  Competing with sportsmanship?  This is true in football, hockey and lacrosse and the rules in each pro league reflect that.  So coaches need to do a better job of teaching kids how to hit correctly, while using good form.  When one’s form is suspect, that player will often try to do other things to compensate, and head shots fall directly into this category.

The second aspect of good coaching that can reduce concussions is concussion avoidance.  The fact is, not every coach or team is going to follow the advice that was laid out above about hitting correctly.  Some teams will take cheap shots and try to hurt opposing players on purpose.  This is just the world we live in.  So coaches need to prepare their kids for this eventuality, and not coddle them.  It can be done in a couple of ways.  Maybe a coach will tell and show his kids how to slide better while protecting themselves (football) or how to better pick up a ground ball under pressure (lacrosse) or how to chase a dumped-in puck without getting killed along the boards (hockey).  Or maybe teams will actually get back to practicing hitting, so kids know how to deliver, and take, a good hit.  These are basic sport skills, but all of them focus on doing things the right way in order to avoid potentially dangerous situations.  I’m not advocating for kids to dive, or play timid in any way.  But showing kids how to do certain maneuvers correctly can certainly make the game safer for them, and probably more fun.

Coaches also have a responsibility to their players, and players have a responsibility to each other.  After all, we’re talking about TEAMS here, right?

I remember one of my college football games where our quarterback had just taken another nasty high hit.  He’d been taking 3-7 step drops all day and connecting on some big passes, but had also been taking some serious hits.  During one drive on second down he got hit as he threw the ball, and from the sideline I could tell something wasn’t right.  He needed help up and was struggling to keep his feet.  3rd down was a running play, our drive was stopped, and we punted.  As the offensive guys came off the field one of the O-linemen said to me, “Bob (not his real name) just fell asleep on me in the middle of calling out the play in the huddle”.  So why did we keep him in the game?!?!?!

Our QB ended up going back out on the field for the rest of the game even though he had definitely suffered a MASSIVE concussion.  The kid was out cold on his feet.  Now I’m not blaming the coaches, or the players on the field, because it was a different time (even though it was only 10 years ago), but in retrospect, we were all to blame.  Me as much as the next guy.  I knew what was going on: our QB had been knocked out on his feet and was still playing.  And I didn’t say a thing.  Moving forward, this silence around concussions has got to stop.

The fact is, we all knew that concussions were dangerous back then, but the culture surrounding sport was still stuck in the tough guy mentality, and it was easy to go along with.  I went along with it, and we were all complicit.  The players on the team had all been coached and brought up that way, the coaches had all been coached and played that way in college.  It was so ingrained in our sports culture that back then, I didn’t even think twice about it.  It was just par for the course.

However, as the research on concussions has increased, and the stories of sudden death due to concussions continue to roll in, the mentality has changed.  Sports are fantastic for so many reasons, but we shouldn’t lose sight of safety for the sake of winning, just like we shouldn’t focus exclusively on safety and forget all about competing.  Athletics teaches us a balance in many ways, and I’m glad to see that an increased focus has been placed on a potentially deadly injury.  As someone who has seen bad concussions up close and personal, I think this balance is important.

Concussions can’t be completely avoided, but they can be prevented more effectively without radically changing the way we compete in sports.  All we need to do is keep our eyes open, learn about the injury, practice and play the right way, and look out for each other… And that’s probably just something we should be teaching our athletes anyway.

To read more on Concussions check out the Ithaca Journal.  They have a great piece on risk exceeding reward and another story about a kid who is taking a year off from football but still playing lacrosse due to 2 concussions suffered last year.