WICHITA, Kansas – There’s been plenty of talk about concussions in football, but are we overlooking serious risk in another sport?
A recent study by the National Academy of Science shows girls soccer is second only to football when it comes to concussion rate, and when you factor in the boys game, it easily ranks among the most dangerous high school sports.
KSN sat down with Jacksen Peterson, one athlete who was forced to weigh his love of the game against his long-term health. Peterson is now the coach of Wichita East High’s C team. He was a standout player for the Blue Aces a couple of years ago. His talents took him to a small school in Minnesota fulfilling a dream of playing college soccer. Then, it happened again.
“I had headaches and neck pain everyday.”
It was preseason of his freshman year, when Petersen suffered his third concussion. His previous two had come during his prep career, but this time was different, seven-to-eight months later he was still feeling the effects. After consulting with doctors and his family, he made the difficult decision to walk away before ever playing a college game.
“It was hard because it was a game I had played since I was 6 years old and to be able to say that you can’t play at a high level is sort of hard.”
KSN wanted to know: how common are stories like his? Doctor Bart Grelinger is a Wichita neurologist, who also serves on the Kansas Sports Concussion Partnership.
“If you play soccer, the chance of having a concussion is about 10 percent a season.”
Our first concern was headers. Soccer is one of the rare sports in which an athlete’s head is used as a tool, and at the highest level they’re using it to redirect balls traveling close to 70 miles an hour. Heading alone is responsible for about a quarter of concussions in soccer and countless more blows to the head that go undetected. KSN News asked Grelinger whether soccer needs to do something about heading the ball.
“I don’t have a good answer for that; I do think we probably ought to stop heading in grade school because the brain is still maturing.”
FIFA recommends no longer working on headers in practice, and more soccer players are trying protective headbands. But Grehlinger sees their impact on concussions as minimal at best. None of Petersen’s concussions came from heading the ball alone. KSN News looked deeper and found the bigger issue seems to be the physical nature of the sport and collisions between two or more athletes trying to make a play on the ball.
“Sometimes, if they’ll kind of look around and try to get their sense of where they are at or what’s going on, that’s a cue to kind of check things out,” said Jennifer Hudson, East High School trainer.
Hudson saw some of those very cues when a collision took Petersen down. Early diagnosis will always be critical because the risk of more concussions essentially doubles with each one. But, Grelinger says the number one way to curb concussions in soccer is to cut down on how physical the game has become.
“We just need rules about aggressive play, we need rules about contact. We have those rules, they’re just not enforced.”
That change starts with parents and coaches, and the way they’re teaching the game. KSN watched Petersen’s practice to see how he’s driving home the message with his players.
“If you want to protect yourself, you have to get your arms up.”
It’s one small step, but it’s a start. Petersen wants kids to play soccer despite his story and hopes a focus on fundamentals and better awareness of concussions will help them avoid a similar fate.
“I sort of want them to feel safe and be protected and enjoy their time out here and not have to worry about injuries.”
USD 259 has adopted the standards established by Dr. Grelinger and the Kansas Sports Concussion Partnership. Those start with a baseline exam before the season begins, and should a player have a concussion, he or she must be cleared by a doctor before returning to the field. The Sedgwick County Soccer Association is also more proactive in diagnosing concussions providing kids with bag tags that identify symptoms. It’s all part of a wealth of information to help keep your kids safe.