The Concussion Crisis
Concussion. The word sounds kind of serious. When many people think of concussions, they visualize people who are delirious, falling over, or can’t remember anything. These are all possible. But concussions can have much less severe symptoms. In fact, there could be seemingly no symptoms at all. Regardless of how serious a head injury may appear to us, it can be very serious and very dangerous. This is why it is so important that everyone involved in youth soccer learn as much as possible about concussions, and it is why concussions have become such a hot topic in sports.
But is it really that big of an issue?
Yes, a concussion is a big deal and must be taken seriously. But it is not an epidemic like many people are making it out to be. Nowadays, it may seem like athletes are getting way more concussions than ever before. There are way more documented cases in recent years than in years past. But are people actually receiving more head injuries, or are we just documenting more concussions because we now know what they are? There were not many documented concussions in the past because we did not know much about them. Now that we do, we can document them. What used to be brushed off as a minor knock is now treated more seriously – which is a good thing. However, at the same time, people are now overreacting about them.
The overreacting is the crisis. People are getting so worried about concussions that they are trying to take drastic, short-sighted measures. Yes, in a perfect world, if we could prevent all concussions, it would be great. But that is not realistic. The only way to do that is to have people sit in padded rooms all day with no physical interaction – and even that won’t guarantee anything.
People are trying to ban heading in youth soccer. This is a crisis. This is a reaction based on ignorance, short-sightedness, and a fear of litigation. People are not taking the time to actually learn about the significance of heading in causing concussions. They are not considering other plans of action to limit head injuries while also upholding the integrity of the game. And lastly, people are simply afraid of being sued by someone whose child gets a concussion.
Banning heading is not the solution. The solution is education. Adults need to be educated on the topic of concussions – their severity, how to minimize the risk, and how to handle a situation in which a concussion may have occurred. Children need to be educated on how to play the game properly so that they do not put themselves in situations of increased risk. Adults The only way to make smart decisions about anything is to be educated on the topic and make a choice based on all factors involved. Parents and coaches need to be educated on concussions. Organizations like US Soccer are mandating coaches to take a concussion education course in order to coach. This is great. But it is up to individual coaches to take it seriously. It is also up to parents to take the time to learn about them so that they can properly handle the situation if their child sustains a head injury. Too often, adults allow children to play after a head injury because the child feels okay. Just because there is no headache, dizziness, or loss of balance at a particular time, does not mean the player is not concussed. Symptoms ≠ severity of concussion. At the same time, too many adults are way too protective, which puts kids in more dangerous situations. For instance, consider the padded head bands. Not the ones like Petr Cech’s, who needs to wear one as a result of previous injury. The ones you buy at the sporting goods store. Many players wear these as a preventative measure. These do not prevent concussions because they do not prevent a jolting of the head. However, they do give players a false sense of security and prevent them from taking the precautionary measures they otherwise would. We also get scared of concussions and start to do things like ban heading or not practice it. This only makes players less familiar and more scared, which results in poor technique and an increased chance of injury (see Figure 1 below).
Children We need to properly educate our youth players to help minimize the risk of head injuries. This includes proper heading technique and proper sporting behavior. We need to help young players become comfortable heading the ball and teach them the proper technique. If a player heads the ball with the proper part of his head and asserts his momentum instead of standing still and letting the ball hit him on top of the head, he will not be at much risk at all of sustaining a concussion. In order to ensure that our players will use proper technique, we need to teach it to them. We don’t need to do it every day, an entire practice, or at an age before the ball is actually in the air regularly. But we do need to teach it to them and practice it enough so that they can execute a proper header the same as they do a proper pass. Without the right coaching and practical (match) experience with heading, players will be uncomfortable and scared to head the ball, only increasing the risk of injury. Secondly and most importantly, most concussions occur due to activity other than heading. This alone makes the case of banning heading a bad one. Concussions are usually a result of collisions – with other players or the ground (like our friend Petr Cech, for instance). As adults, we need to teach players how to go in for challenges and how to play physically yet sportingly. Too many adults encourage reckless challenges or teach players to try and commit illegal physical contact without getting caught by the referee. If we focused more on important aspects of the game (e.g. technique, tactics, and sportsmanship) and less on trying to physically dominate the opponent, we would drastically reduce the chances of concussions for our young players. We must not ban heading. For the good of the game and for the safety of our players, we must allow heading to remain at the youth level. Concussions are a serious issue, which is exactly why we must take more practical and realistic measures to help minimize the risk and ensure proper action if someone does sustain a head injury. We must educate ourselves and educate our players, not haphazardly change an innocent, fundamental aspect of the game.