Technology’s Role in Preventing Head Injuries in High School Sports

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Technology is changing many things about sports today, and it’s playing a big role in preventing head injuries in high school sports. Of course, every athlete understands there are risks associated with intense training, especially in a contact sport such as football. But some injuries, like TBIs (traumatic brain injuries), can potentially cause lifelong complications and be completely devastating to a young player. That’s where technology is changing things up—especially as it relates to the high school level.

Why Focus on High School Sports?

Over the last few years, there has been a lot of talk about head injuries and TBIs. Perhaps the most alarming trend is that these conversations used to take place almost exclusively in professional level sports. Now it’s widely understood that head injuries are also commonplace at the high school and college levels. In fact, studies have shown that up to 47 percent of high school football players suffer concussions each season and even more troubling, 35 percent suffer multiple concussions per season.

Repeated head injuries increase the risk of subdural hematomas (bleeding on the brain), something that can occur after a player has suffered from post-concussion syndrome, which results from not allowing the full healing of one brain injury before suffering another one. These daunting statistics have left high school coaches and healthcare professionals asking: How do we better protect our players? It now looks like the answer to that question is a mix of education, training and technique, plus the use of technology and enhanced protective gear.

Technology-Enhanced Equipment

Riddell has been creating protective helmets since 1939. Their InSite Impact Response System is designed with chips inside that detect how many times a player’s head feels an impact. The technology then analyzes the hit to determine if it may have been hard enough to warrant concern. If needed, an alert is sent to the sideline staff with information about the impact, allowing for faster treatment and assessment.

Reebok developed another interesting product when they collaborated with engineers at the Cambridge electronics startup, MC10. They created a protective cap called the CheckLightcap. This is a small LED unit, visible to other players and coaches, and it hangs just below a player’s helmet. If a severe head impact is detected, the light turns red, alerting coaches and other players that medical treatment may be needed.

While we’re talking about high school sports, it may come as a surprise to some that cheerleading also sees a high percentage of serious injuries each year, many of which are head injuries. The expectation for increasingly difficult stunts and impressive acrobatics has grown considerably since the sport’s inception, but the incorporation of protective gear has not kept up with this change.

Other sports that don’t traditionally use a helmet—like cheerleading, gymnastics, and soccer— have not been completely left behind by technology. MIT graduates created a wearable sensor called the Jolt. Measuring less than 1½ inch by ½ inch, the Jolt is tiny and clips onto any helmet or headgear. The small design does not impact an athlete’s performance and is hardly noticeable, even when positioned on a wrestling helmet or cheerleader’s headband. Parents and/or coaches receive alerts via their smartphone when an impact occurs that warrants attention. In addition, the athlete will feel a vibration that signals them to stop and seek medical care.

Video Analysis for Prevention

Beyond the powerful advantages of wearable tech, video also plays a key role in preventing sports injuries. Reviewing a team’s video footage allows coaches to identify risks associated with a player’s technique and form. When coaches are using real-time video replay, player performance can be analyzed and improved upon, allowing for immediate identification of potential problem areas and corrections on the field before an injury is sustained. Video clips of helmet-to-helmet contact can also reveal what a player could have done differently, better preparing them for future performance and possibly avoiding serious injuries. Kids are also very adept at visual learning, so showing them what they’re doing wrong using video, and then showing them how to do it differently, also using video, can shorten the learning curve.

Adoption of Technology is Slow

It’s interesting that the adoption of technology, whether it’s instant video replay or sensors that keep kids safe, has been somewhat slow. In January of 2015, the Boston Globe reported on this topic, interviewing a Reebok executive about their CheckLight cap, a sports activity impact monitor, which retails for about $150 and which was introduced in the middle part of 2013. Litchfield said that the product had won awards and that people love it, but that sales were best classified as “anemic.”

The same article reported that Riddell’s InSite Impact Response System, which was also released in 2013, and retails for about $150, was being used by about 200 youth, high school, and college football teams. Given that there are some 14,000 high school football teams alone in the U.S., that’s a fairly low number.

So, why is adoption slow? If you live and work in the tech space, you’re likely always paying attention to new gear, devices, and platforms that could potentially make sports better, keep kids safer, or help a team play more effectively. But for many, the latest technology isn’t always top-of-mind. So some of the slow adoption can probably be attributed to a simple lack of awareness. It’s also possible that parents who are aware of technology that might improve play or help keep a kid safe from a concussion don’t want to appear overprotective or for their kids to face being ridiculed or teased as a result. We’ve collectively ignored the dangers associated with youth sports for a long time now, and there’s also perhaps the thought that if we don’t talk about it all the time, it just won’t happen. There’s also the factor of kids keeping quiet about an injury or about not feeling quite right because they are worried about letting the coach and the team down. Lastly, it would also be fair to say that when it comes to wearables, the proof is still in the pudding with regard to the data they can provide. As that data becomes more conclusive, the case for integrating wearables into sports operations at a youth and high school level will become a stronger one.

Technology Changes Everything For Youth and High School Sports

The technological advances that allow coaches and trainers to keep a closer eye on players during practice and games is a big step forward, especially for youth and high school sports. Technology also affords faster access to injuries and the ability to get players the medical treatment they need more rapidly than ever before—even when players might not think they need medical attention. That said, there also needs to be greater prevention tactics in place to reduce the number of overall injuries. Having the ability to review plays via instant replay video, moments after a play happens, offers coaches invaluable information. When paired with equipment—protective gear that provides an alert when a hard contact has been made, wearables, and other devices—video technology will reduce concussions, keep young players focused on the game and, most importantly, allow them to stay safe.

Other Resources on This Topic:

Concussion monitoring gear is a tough sell
Don’t tell coach: playing through concussions

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