Like most kids with raw talent, Eli began his athletic career playing catch in the yard. It was clear from his earliest days he had the speed, strength, coordination and competitive spirit to be a fine athlete. A kid with a good attitude, he could take coaching and enjoyed learning.
We packed into cars, bundled for the cold weather, to watch his Pop Warner football games. With hot chocolate in hand we found our familiar places in the stands. Eli’s dad volunteered on the sidelines to move the chains, where he had a close-up view of the action. As his uncle, I was very proud.
Eli’s football career ended in high school. His story, however, is not one of tragedy but listening.
Being surrounded by experts is a great privilege of a college president. With the prevention and treatment of concussions in recent sports news, the end of the NFL lockout and the high school and college fall sports seasons upon us, I sought out assistant athletic trainer, clinical instructor and associate professor of exercise science Leslie Duinink.
I expected to receive a physiological analysis of concussions but instead heard an impassioned plea from one who spends an incredible amount of time with injured athletes.
“We need to listen to our kids,” emphasized Duinink. For her, the greatest challenge with managing concussions is awareness. “We need to enable our kids to increase their self-awareness and be honest with others about symptoms they are experiencing. Often they are not even sure how to interpret what they’re feeling. They just know they don’t feel well.”
The consequences of a misjudgment, like lack of sleep or a touch of the flu, can be life changing, with the risk of more serious brain injury compounded when one injury piles on top of another. And, allowing sufficient time for healing is not about hours on the clock or days on the calendar. It’s a confidence that the physical, cognitive and behavioral symptoms of concussion have been eliminated.
Dr. Tom Boat, a pediatrician and dean of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, and a Central College alumnus, added, “We are not paying enough attention to the behavioral dimensions of health. The answer may be in providing more training so that practitioners, parents and coaches better understand the complex pressures on the adolescent athlete.”
Boat referenced current brain research indicates full brain maturity isn’t reached until age 25 or 26, before which time humans may not be fully able to understand the consequence of risk. Facing powerful influences — family members, coaches, teammates and pro sports players — children and adolescents aren’t mature enough to understand the long-term consequences for a wrong choice about their injuries. And, the social dynamics surrounding injury can encourage understating symptoms to “play with pain” or “tough it out.”
These conversations reminded me about my nephew’s experience. Eli suffered three concussions at a terribly young age. His fourth, a much more severe one, came during his 10th grade football season. He remembers never-ending dizziness and headaches and how hard it was to pay attention in class.
According to his doctor, risk factors for further head injury were too high and lowering his risk would mean making the choice to end his football career and pursue other sports.
Making a tough decision like this at such a young age required a lot of listening on Eli’s part. He had some big advantages. His mother is a nurse and his father has a background in physical education. They observed Eli and his symptoms. They were aware of the risks and helped Eli interpret them. They had a capacity to interact effectively with Eli’s doctor and coach. Though the decision was Eli’s, he was surrounded by information, awareness and understanding that served him well.
As a society, we need to enable families to make sound decisions regarding the health and well-being of our young athletes. It’s a great challenge for parents, coaches and trainers to know when it becomes their responsibility to step in and make judgments. While there are guidelines for making medical decisions about concussions, such choices are always contextual. No two kids are alike and the circumstances of one athlete cannot always be translated to another.
We dare not abdicate our responsibilities by relying on equipment, updated rules and conventional wisdom. We need to listen to our young athletes individually, remain aware of their behavior patterns and be conscious of the social pressures that can place them at risk.
Their well-being depends on it.
Dr. Mark Putnam is president of Central College in Pella, Iowa. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about an easy, reliable and objective test to detect concussions in athletes, please see the United States Sports Academy’s King-Devick Test resource page. Research is proving that the test is an effective assessment tool at sports events to quickly determine if an athlete suffered a concussion. The simple King-Devick test can be administered by anyone, including coaches, parents or athletic trainers.
Dr. Steven Devick, a co-inventor of the King-Devick Test, will present a seminar at 1:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 11 on the Academy’s campus in Daphne, Ala. The seminar is free and open to the public as part of the Academy’s annual two-day Awards of Sport event.
For an example of the King-Devick Test, please click here.