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High school football coaches tackle concussion training head on

House Committee on Education and the Workforce Dem/Flickr

Football helmet of the late Owen Thomas, a former University of Pennsylvania football player, brought to the hearing on H.R 6172, Protecting Student Athletes from Concussions Act by his mother, Rev. Katherine E. Brearley, Ph.D. A CDC study shows concussion rates in athletics have more than doubled in the past decade.

The start of the new school year also means the start of high school football season.

For the players, it means a lifetime of memories — but it could mean a lifetime of health problems for players who suffer from concussions.

It’s become an all-too-common problem in high school football, and high school football coaches know it. That’s why more than 200 showed up for a concussion training session at Helen Bernstein High School in Los Angeles this week.

Last year, the Centers for Disease Control released a study that said concussion rates in athletics have more than doubled in the last decade. The CDC says they’ve reached “an epidemic level.”

Estimates vary greatly, but anywhere from 43,000 to 67,000 high school football players reportedly suffer concussive head injuries. Still, the true number is believed to be much higher, as many athletes don’t report symptoms.

That’s why Barbara Fiege, director of athletics for the L.A. Unified School District, had a simple and direct welcome for the football coaches at the concussion training session: “I don’t think there’s any more important issue these days in high school than concussion training,” she said.

Sun Valley High School athletic director Amy Matthews said she was eager to learn more about spotting the signs of concussion. According to Matthews, the school has only had a football team for three years, but in that short time, concussions have become the program's biggest problem.

Last year, Matthews added, the varsity football team had three concussions in a single game. The ambulance was called for each of them.

When asked about the root of problem, she pointed to inexperience.

“Honestly, I just think it’s a lack of knowledge of the sport. They don’t know how to hit each other; they don’t know how to take a hit,” she continued. “I don’t know if that’s the coaches’ fault or just [the players are] newer.”

Either way, the point of the training session is to teach coaches how to spot the signs of concussion. A player with an undiagnosed or untreated concussion could suffer from a number of health problems: headache, sleep disorder, memory loss, even depression.
The session also marked the launch of the Sports Legacy Institute's California Concussion Coalition, a non-profit research organization that studies and treats brain trauma in athletes.
Chris Nowinski is one of the Institute’s co-founders. He played football at Harvard and used to be a pro wrestler. Nowinski commended the coaches for being ahead of the curve.

He said the idea behind forming a coalition is to ensure existing programs “work in partnership.”

Among the celebrity speakers at the concussion training session was pro wrestler Rob Van Dam. He said he’s suffered lasting brain damage from his days in the ring. That’s why he’s arranged for the Sports Legacy Institute to study his brain after his death.
Van Dam said he’s had “hundreds and hundreds” of concussions that have left him with a laundry list of debilitating symptoms.

“Sometimes the lights hurt. Sometimes I lose my equilibrium. Sometimes the sound goes out. Sometimes everything is slow motion.”

Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown signed bill AB 1451 to require concussion training for coaches at school. The law doesn’t take effect for a year, but it’s intended to strengthen another already on the books: Any student suspected of sustaining a concussion or head injury is prohibited from returning to play until they are cleared by a licensed health care provider.

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