The rise of sports-related concussions and awareness of long-term effects on some former National football League players and other athletes have resulted in a new vigilance by school and youth sports organizations.
Following passage of a state law requiring all coaches, student-athletes and parents to complete concussion education, Milton High School has set guidelines for its athletes.
According to Milton High Athletic Director Steve Traister, the school requires all athletes to take the ImPACT test — a computerized neurocognitive assessment tool that helps evaluate a student’s baseline cognition. The school bought the software program through the school budget.
“We started this system [in 2010] … The test is good for two years,” Traister said. “This is another tool we have for doctors to use. It’s not the end-all-be-all, but it helps determine when an athlete is ready to return to play.”
Traister’s statistics show that 14 students sustained concussions in the 2008-09 school year, with one athlete suffering two concussions. in 2010, 22 students suffered concussions.
“Obviously, some sports are more prone to concussions, those being football, hockey and lacrosse,” said Traister, who added that cheerleading is the leading cause of injuries to female athletes but not limited to concussions.
Traister said football helmets and other equipment are checked on a regular basis by coaches, the trainer and athletes for proper fit. Air is regularly pumped into football and lacrosse helmets using a hand pump to make sure the fit is correct for each player. Hockey players provide their own equipment and are responsible for the fit of their own helmets.
“But you can’t always prevent injuries in sports,” Traister said.
Dr. Robert Cantu, co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of Medicine and co-director of the Neurologic Sports Injury Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, appeared in the media suggesting that children under the age of 14 should not be involved in collision sports.
That warning has been met with concern by some organizers of local youth sports groups.
“I think football – as a game – somebody has to solve the concussion problem,” said Craig Primiani, head of the Milton Mustangs youth football team. “I don’t know if it’s going to be in the form of technology, or basically eliminating contact during the week [in practices], and only have contact during the games. I know that’s been talked about by some coaches.”
Based on his experience, Primiani said concussions do not happen in the youngest players, such as those on the third- to fifth grade teams. At that level, players are learning the basics of tackling techniques.
“We try to focus a lot of our practice on tackling correctly, not leading with the head, but leading with the arms. We really spend a lot of time on that,” Primiani said.
The Mustangs also have minimum and maximum weight limits for its players, with a 200-pound maximum. Players weighing between 175 to 200 pound are limited to playing on the offensive line.
John Pages, executive vice president of the Milton Junior Wildcats football team – formerly the Broncos – said the high level of awareness and training of coaches in the league.
“All our coaches are CPR-certified and go through a baseline clinic on concussion training,” said Pages, adding that coaches spend much of their time instructing players on safety and tackling with their heads up.
Players are told to let someone know when they are hurt, but Pages said that message is sometimes lost on a child who wants to keep playing.
“It’s tough. Kids are smart. We’ve had situations where a kid gets hit and gets hurt, but he wants to keep playing so he doesn’t tell anyone,” Pages said. “We have to stress to them to say something: ‘Let us know if you’re hurt.’
“But I think football gets a bad rap. It’s in the public light about concussions so much. But I know other sports, like hockey, where there are a lot of concussions that occur, but you don’t hear as much about it.”
The Mustangs and Junior Wildcats have staff from Fallon Ambulance at home games in case of injury.
Parents are concerned about the issue. Judy McDonough, whose 12-year-old son Aidan plays hockey, said she agrees with the experts’ opinion on younger children not playing contact sports.
“I am thrilled with it,” McDonough said, adding that her concern about checking in youth hockey. “I think at that age, there is such a growth difference, size-wise. It’s not an equal playing field.”
Her son, who is tall for his age, was involved in an incident two years ago in which he checked a smaller hockey player who suffered a concussion from the hit.
“It was terrible. The kid was out for a month,” McDonough said.
Cantu and his associates at Boston University are gleaning more and more information on concussions in their studies, so the issue is sure to be on the forefront of medical research. Those dealing with young athletes will no doubt be waiting and watching.
“As someone who has played the game of football and understands football, I think concussions are going to be the big question, the big issue in the future,” Primiani said.