Are The Risks of Concussions at the High School Level Blown Out of Proportion?

I’ll be transparent and admit it. I hate concussions, yet I’ve never had one. But I’ll bet I hate them for a very different reason than what most people are thinking. I want to acknowledge that concussions are real, and they shouldn’t be ignored when they do occur; however, what I want to address in this article is how the fear of concussions has gotten out of hand and how we need to be careful with the declining participation in contact sports, particularly the sport of football.

Let’s navigate these waters together with some anecdotal evidence, some common sense, and some scientific data to support why we shouldn’t fear concussions or CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).

Allow me to share my personal perspective on the topic of concussions. You’re welcome to disagree, and I’m sure many will, but hopefully I can get you, in the very least, thinking more critically about this issue rather than just blindly believing that contact sports are harmful. Contact sports have changed 1000 fold more lives than will ever be impacted by concussions, or any injury for that matter. I think, like many things in our culture and society due to hyper-awareness, we have been lead to believe that concussions happen rather frequently in contact sports.

Allow me to take a trip down memory lane to share some common sense perspective with all of you. In the fall growing up, I was a football player. I played 3 years of varsity high school football and a little over a year of college football. In the winter I was a wrestler, where I wrestled 4 years of varsity. Springtime brought about baseball, where I was a catcher and I played 3 years of high school varsity baseball and then 3 years of college baseball. Throughout all those years and seasons of competitive sports there were a lot of tackles, sacks, collisions, elbows to the head, bumped heads, bloody noses, and foul balls off the face mask. I even took a couple punches to the face in some scraps being a young man, yet I’ve never had a concussion. Maybe it was the fact that I had a thick wrestler’s neck that made me particularly resilient to concussions?

There’s research to support this actually: In one study, athletic trainers at 51 high schools measured the head and neck circumference, neck length and neck strength of 6,704 athletes who played basketball, lacrosse and soccer during two different academic years. The study revealed that concussed athletes had a smaller neck circumference, a small neck coupled with a larger head (ratio), and less neck strength than uninjured athletes. In sum, neck strength was a significant predictor of concussion. And consider this: For every 1 pound increase in neck strength, there was a 5% decrease in the odds of sustaining a concussion. 

Here’s how I interpret that:

GET YOUR KID OUT FOR WRESTLING AND DEVELOP A THICK, STRONG NECK! AT LEAST HAVE THEM GET WITH A QUALIFIED STRENGTH COACH WHO CAN HELP THEM DEVELOP THEIR BODY SO IT’S NOT A “BOBBLEHEAD BODY.” BETTER YET, HAVE THEM DO BOTH!

Perhaps I was lucky? Did I get my bell rung a couple times? Yeah. Did I see stars a couple times? Yeah. Maybe that’s what they are calling concussions today? But here’s the thing, of all the other young men I played with, I can’t remember a single one of them being diagnosed with a concussion. Could I be missing one or two in there, of course; however, by and large, there were hardly any.

Let’s put some numbers to my personal theory. 3 years of varsity football put me around conservatively 60 guys every fall. Let’s just say 20 kids per class from sophomore to senior. This means, in total I have a population of about 100 kids throughout my total high school football experience. Add another 50 from my season of college football and we have 150. Wrestling, because it’s so hard and that filters out the weak, participation is generally lower, but we had roughly 40 kids in the room each of those years. So let’s say 10 per class. That put me around 70 total kids throughout my high school wrestling experience. Then there was baseball, which isn’t a contact sport; however, it seems concussions are being diagnosed in increasing amounts in that sport too, which I find interesting.

Quick side story, I was beaned in the face by a low 80’s fastball in high school. Right on the jaw. No concussion. Outside of having my mouth mangled, because I had braces at the time, along with a pretty swollen face, I was behind the plate the second game of that double header. It may sound like I’m trying to Mr. Tough Guy here, but I promise you that’s not what I’m trying to do. Back to my point, in baseball we had roughly 30 guys on a roster, and I played 3 years of high school varsity baseball, and 2 years of varsity college baseball. That puts me around another 100 guys. So in total, we have a rough estimation of 150 football players, 70 wrestlers, and 100 baseball players. Many of these people I’ve maintained contact with over the years at some level because there’s a very unique bond, a brotherhood if you will, of playing team sports, particularly the hard, physical ones.

So, out of 320 athletes in my experiences, I can hardly remember any concussions, and I can’t name one who struggles with post concussion symptoms later in life. Could I be missing one or two? Yeah. Let’s say I’m missing 10, that put us at a 3.2% chance of any concussion related incidences throughout those 3 sports combined, but I believe it’s even much less than that. But all the fear mongering surrounding this topic will lead you to believe otherwise.

I’ve asked this question to many athletes from different towns with similar athletic experiences, and the answer is just about the same as mine. Why do you think that is?

I’ve got a colleague who is one of the most successful high school football coaches in America and I contacted him about this topic of concussions. I asked him if concussions were a frequent injury in their program. His response, “it’s basically a non-issue; we’ve had maybe 2 concussions in the last 4 years of our program. If kids are part of a sound strength program, we’ve found that they become very resilient and it just hasn’t been a problem for us.” If you ran the numbers for that program, you’d find that risk factor of concussions to be miraculously low.

In another conversation with a former NHL Hockey player, who actually suffered from a few concussions said, “I never saw concussions or experienced one until I got to a very elite level of hockey where the athletes were much bigger and faster and the collisions became much more magnified. At the lower levels, it just hardly ever happened.”

The reality for most high school athletes is that they will never play another snap of football, period of hockey, period of wrestling, etc…after high school. We can’t be taking examples of NFL athletes, NHL athletes, MMA athletes, and Olympic level wrestlers and then relate that to our youth and high school level athletes. It truly shouldn’t be part of the discussion. It’s kind of like saying a NASCAR racer’s likelihood of concussion in a car going nearly 200mph is the same as a high school boy getting his driver’s license and driving through his town at 30mph. It’s just NOT the same conversation folks.

Here’s an interesting study done at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester on 438 football players to assess whether high school football played between 1946 and 1956, when headgear was less protective than today, was associated with development of neurodegenerative diseases later in life [Link to full study]:

Methods

All male students who played football from 1946 to 1956 in the high schools of Rochester, Minnesota, plus a non–football-playing referent group of male students in the band, glee club, or choir were identified. Using the records-linkage system of the Rochester Epidemiology Project, we reviewed (from October 31, 2010, to March 30, 2011) all available medical records to assess later development of dementia, Parkinson disease (PD), or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). We also compared the frequency of dementia, PD, or ALS with incidence data from the general population of Olmsted County, Minnesota.

Results

We found no increased risk of dementia, PD, or ALS among the 438 football players compared with the 140 non–football-playing male classmates. Parkinson disease and ALS were slightly less frequent in the football group, whereas dementia was slightly more frequent, but not significantly so. When we compared these results with the expected incidence rates in the general population, only PD was significantly increased; however, this was true for both groups, with a larger risk ratio in the non–football group.

Conclusion

Our findings suggest that high school students who played American football from 1946 to 1956 did not have an increased risk of later developing dementia, PD, or ALS compared with non–football-playing high school males, despite poorer equipment and less regard for concussions compared with today and no rules prohibiting head-first tackling (spearing).

Chomp on that one for awhile. Perhaps we should be having the same fear mongering conversations with the band, glee club, and choir? Side note: I sang choir all the way through high school, and I loved it! So I’m not taking a jab at the arts whatsoever. If you’ve read this far and all that I’ve done is just supports you argument for not playing physically challenging sports, it’s likely that you and I will have to agree to disagree once again.

But we both like reading books and jamming to some tunes right!? So we can still be friends.

Look, there’s an inherent risk with anything, right? You take a similar risk when you drive your car everyday, when you walk on icy sidewalks, or when you go hiking in the mountains? Heck, I take a bigger risk climbing into a tree stand now to go bowhunting!

Is this low risk really an acceptable reason to not allow your kid to participate in some of the sports that can truly be life changing for them? Boys in particular need to learn to be tough, gritty, physical, and how to control those emotions; not in a barbaric sort of way, but in a self-confidence, self-respect, and mentally strong kind of way. There are intangibles of life that the classroom will never be able to touch, and extracurricular activities like band, choir, math club, debate team, etc….while awesome, just will not teach the type of lessons to become the tough, gritty, and overcoming humans in the real world.

“Yeah, but we didn’t really understand concussions back then like we do now.” This may be a position many are holding right now as they read this.” I would agree that we understand more about concussions and that is a good thing, but I would argue that the pendulum has swung way to far in the other direction and now there are many misdiagnosed concussions due to the hyper-awareness surrounding it.

  • Got a headache and you’re a football player? Go see the athletic trainer, concussion.
  • Got elbowed in the nose in wrestling and dazed for a minute? Go see the athletic trainer, concussion.
  • Dehydrated and have a headache because of it, but you play a contact sport? Go see the athletic trainer, concussion.
  • Want to skip practice or a couple weeks for that matter? Act like you got a headache, and tell coach. Go see the athletic trainer, concussion.

If you don’t think that last part is being abused by young athletes who don’t want to show up and work hard, you’re kidding yourselves. It very well may be the #1 incidence of concussions. I’ll probably get hate mail for that. And I may get hate mail for this, athletic trainers and others well meaning health professionals diagnosing concussions are hesitant to NOT diagnose a concussion for fear of being sued in our litigious society. So for them, may as well be cautious and call it a concussion just to be safe. This is happening as well folks, all of which is skewing the numbers and creating unnecessary fear.

Here’s a link to an article of various ways concussions can be misdiagnosed [Link to article].

You may be vehemently against all that I’ve wrote so far, and if that’s you, ask yourself this question:

Despite continuous reduction in participation of sports in recent years, and ever increasing advancements in the technology and gear to reduce injuries, how are concussions still going up? 

Or are they really?

 

Is this what we’re raising?

If you use mainstream media as your main source of information, man alive are you going to get lied to and misled. Media looks for the outlier incidences like murders, destruction, disease, and even concussions, across the globe and while these are very statistically insignificant and rare incidences, the prevalence in which we see them on TV makes it seem as if it’s the norm.

This isn’t the case ladies and gentlemen.

The better question to ask ourselves is what’s the inherent risk from preventing our future generations from participating in contact sports? What message are we sending to them when we encourage them to not participate in a tough physical sport that requires hard work, self-discipline, and teamwork? What happens to our military? Do we just not allow our future generations to not go into the military because it’s going to be tough and physical? What happens when we aren’t producing strong, resilient bodies that become battle tested leaders? What happens when sacrifice, discipline, hard work, and overcoming adversity stops happening in the physical sense? What happens when we encourage kids to quit because they aren’t getting enough playing time in their tough physical sport?

I believe kids and teenagers have incredibly resilient, tough, gritty bodies and minds, but they must be developed appropriately by doing them alongside their brother and sister in a physically challenging setting, and playing contact sports may be the very best vehicle to do that.

Or we could just let them have more free time so they can have less structure, play on their phones, play video games, netflix binge, take drugs, and drink alcohol.

So, let’s start really talking about the real risks of what’s happening here folks. Encourage your son or daughter to play football and go out for wrestling. Yes, there’s other wonderful contact sports out there as well, but these are near and dear to my heart, and I’ll promote them and watch them mold weak boys into tough men until the day that I die.

Read another article [Click Here] from a father that was worried about his undersized son playing football.

 

adversity, alcohol, american football, athlete participation, baseball, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, concussions, drug, football, gamers, grit, high school football, high school wrestling, leadership, mayo clinic, misdiagnosed concussions, multi-sport athletes, neck strength, parenting, play sports, strength training, wrestling

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