A concussion can occur in any sport and at all levels of play, from little league to the major leagues. In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and prevention estimates that 1.6 million to 3.8 million concussions occur in sports and recreational activities each year.
A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury that can occur in both contact and non-contact sports. It's caused by a bump, jolt or blow to either the head or the body that causes the brain to move quickly back and forth and/or twist within the skull. According to the Positive Coaching Alliance, between 65 percent and 80 percent of concussions are unrecognized at least initially. Moreover, athletes who have suffered one concussion are at increased risk of another concussion and therefore of "second impact syndrome"—a concussion that occurs before the brain has fully recovered from the first trauma. This is where the most severe, long-term damage can occur in an athlete.
Coaches and parents have primary responsibility for safety and concussion prevention. For coaches, concussion education must start on the first day of practice and continue through each season. For parents, it starts right when a child expresses interest in sports and recreational activities, long before the first practice.
Knowing when to pull an injured athlete is the first step in concussion safety and protecting an athlete's future. Concussions have been deemed the "invisible injury," and as such, the decision on whether to tell an athlete to "tough it out" or pull him or her out of a game or practice can be challenging. This is why parents and coaches need to know when an athlete is presenting concussion symptoms. According to the CDC, you should suspect a concussion when an athlete:
- Appears dazed or stunned
- Is confused about an assignment or position
- Forgets an instruction
- Is unsure of the game, score or opponent
- Moves clumsily
- Answers questions slowly
- Loses consciousness (even briefly)
- Shows mood, behavior or personality changes
- Can't recall events prior to a hit or fall
- Can't recall events after a hit or fall
More severe symptoms may be present when an athlete:
- Has one pupil larger than the other
- Is drowsy or cannot be awakened
- Has a headache that gets worse
- Has weakness, numbness or decreased coordination
- Exhibits repeated vomiting or nausea
- Slurs his speech
- Has convulsions or seizures
- Cannot recognize people or places
- Becomes increasingly confused, restless or agitated
- Presents unusual behavior
- Loses consciousness (even a brief loss of consciousness should be taken seriously)
It can be hard to resist the "win at all costs" mentality now prevalent even at the lowest levels of athletics. CoachUp football coach and former New England Patriots offensive tackle Max Lane recognizes that pressure but also understands the lifelong impact a concussion can have on an athlete.
"Everybody wants to win. Coaches have to let the players know that, at the beginning of the season, that the coach is fostering an atmosphere of safety first, even when that means safety over winning," Lane says. "The coach has to communicate to the players that it's OK for them to speak up if they've been hit in the head."
While parents may not be teaching their athletes the finer details of strategy and technique, parents can reinforce a safe sports environment by not promoting or encouraging a style of play that might compromise an athlete's safety. CoachUp suggests these concussion prevention tips for parents and coaches:
- Educate yourself. Learn the symptoms of concussions and traumatic brain injuries. Review the CDC's fact sheet for parents and take the CDC's free online course. Be familiar with the CDC's guide for coaches.
- Educate your children. Review the CDC's fact sheet for athletes with your child and quiz your child on the symptoms on an ongoing basis.
- Encourage open communication and ask questions. Introduce yourself to your child's coach in a friendly and open manner so that the coach will always feel comfortable coming to you with any concerns regarding your child. Then ask your child's coach how he or she will be conducting concussion education over the course of your child's season. Continue to maintain regular contact with the coach over the season and encourage your child to talk to his coach on a regular basis so he or she develops a comfortable and open relationship with their coach. Having an honest relationship with the coach and knowing that you are communicating with the coach regularly will encourage your child to air concerns more openly should he or she sustain a concussion or injury in play.
- Know who the medical professional is. Identify who the trainers or medical professionals are in your child's sports organization or school and find out if they will be attending games. Always know who is in charge of medical care or whom to speak with should your child ever get hurt. Make sure your child's medical information is always on file and up to date with their sports organization and school.
- Celebrate safe and legal play. During and after competitions, make an extra effort to celebrate when your child makes a play that is completed with good form and technique. If you see your child making plays that are overly violent, talk to your child about it immediately after the game. If your child says that was how he was taught to play, consider following up with your child's coach to review how you can help reinforce safe play with your child, which will help reinforce to the coach that you want your child being coached safely.
CoachUp is a service that connects athletes of all levels to nearby private coaches.