School personnel weigh in on MHSAA concussion report findings

BODY CHECK: The Michigan High School Athletic Association reported 38 concussions per 1,000 participants in ice hockey during the 2015-16 school year. (Pioneer file photo)

BODY CHECK: The Michigan High School Athletic Association reported 38 concussions per 1,000 participants in ice hockey during the 2015-16 school year. (Pioneer file photo)

BIG RAPIDS – For Big Rapids High School head athletic trainer Jess VanTroostenberghe, the new Michigan High School Athletic Association mandate to report all head injuries last season had little effect.

The Cardinals’ return-to-play protocol for student-athletes who sustained a head injury already was extensive before the MHSAA implemented a rule ahead of the 2015-16 school year requiring member schools to report, by sport, concussions their athletes suffered during practice and competition.

Under the new guidelines, any athlete who sustained a concussion must be cleared by a primary care physician, concussion specialist, physician assistant or nurse practitioner before returning to play.

At BRHS, VanTroostenberghe requires an additional form to be completed, which is based on the University of Michigan Neuro Sport Brain Protocol – a five-day, step-by-step gradual process for return to play.

But for many smaller schools that do not have a full-time athletic trainer, the new MHSAA mandate is the first step in aiming to identify and reduce the incidence of head injuries in high school athletics in Michigan.

“Personally, because I’ve worked very closely with our student-athletes and their families when it comes to concussions, it doesn’t really matter,” VanTroostenberghe said of the MHSAA rule. “I’m always on the phone with mom and dad. I know exactly what’s going on with them, and if I don’t, I am going to find out.

“I’m maybe a little over the top with concussions anyway because I understand the significance of it, and it’s scary. These are developing young minds, so I like to be slightly over cautious with concussions.”

The MHSAA released last month head injury data for the 2015-16 school year. A total of 4,452 head injuries were reported — or 5.9 per member school. Total participation in MHSAA sports for 2015-16 was 284,227 – with students counted once for each sport he or she played. Only 1.6 percent of participants experienced a head injury. Boys experienced 3,003 – or 67 percent – although male participation in sports, especially contact sports, also was higher than girls.

Eleven-player football had the highest rate of head injuries, with 49 reported per 1,000 participants. Ice hockey ranked second with 38, followed by 8-player football with 34 and girls soccer with 30.

Those findings were similar to what Big Rapids reported last year. Of the Cardinals’ 18 documented head injuries, six were to football players and four were to hockey players.

In boys and girls sports played under similar rules, like soccer, basketball and baseball/softball, females reported significantly more concussions.

Although female soccer players reported 30 concussions per 1,000 participants, male soccer players reported 18. In basketball, 29 were reported among female players compared to 11 for males. Softball players reported 11, and baseball players reported four.

“Experts tell us that it is not surprising that girls report more head injuries than boys, but we found it stunning how many more head injuries the girls reported than boys,” MHSAA Executive Director Jack Roberts said in a news release. “We would like to find out what physiological, what psychological and what social factors may contribute to this disparity in reporting and we want to use the answers to better prepare school personnel, especially coaches, who will be working with girls and boys who might be over or under reporting head injuries in interscholastic athletics.

Crossroads Charter Academy reported two concussions in girls soccer, while Big Rapids had one. Reed City reported three concussions in boys soccer and one in girls soccer.

“Soccer is becoming more of a contact sport,” VanTroostenberghe said. “They consider it non-contact, but it is a contact sport. The previous school I worked at, the soccer team had 12 concussions in one year. So am I surprised we have an increase in concussions in soccer? No. The kids are learning how to play harder, the balls are harder. The proper way to head a ball, coaches are trying to teach it, but everyone has different techniques.  You are supposed to hit it with the front of your head and not the top, because that is our biggest bone in our skull.”

All coaches are required to complete a MHSAA Coaches Advancement Program course before the season, which includes information about safety and first aid, but VanTroostenberghe said that doesn’t ensure the correct concussion protocol will be followed.

“Yes, coaches have to take the online concussion webinar and pass it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to understand it,” she said. “A coach can only do so much. Their job is to teach the kids how to play the game. Their job isn’t to watch out for injuries, identify those weird things that are happening, see every hit out there on a Friday night. It is impossible.

“So I understand some athletic directors are frustrated with the whole process. It’s hard for them to know what they need to report. That is one of the nice things of having an athletic trainer on staff. We can take that out of their hand.”

Reed City football coach Monty Price agrees that having an athletic trainer on the sidelines is beneficial.

“We let the professionals handle that (head injuries),” he said. “We communicate if we think we have a possible situation. We let them run the protocol and they have the final call on kids if they feel they might be showing symptoms. We’re fortunate to have two (athletic trainers) on staff, because it takes a lot of stress off us. We are not doctors, we are coaches.”

Former Crossroads Charter Academy athletic director J.J. Eads, who was responsible for reporting head injuries for the Cougars last year, said the new rule does create more work for athletic directors, but it is a critical step in improving safety.

“I understand why the state is doing it, tracking these numbers,” he said. “That has been the big push these last few years, not only how to prevent concussions, but making sure they are reported and properly taken care of.”

 Roberts said the first year of the program was a step in the right direction, but there still is work to be done.

“We know that school sports are safer than they’ve ever been, thanks to advancements in equipment and an increase in more complete coaches education and rules designed to promote safety in both practices and competition,” he said. “For the first time through our mandated reporting requirement, we will be able to establish baselines to measure our progress year over year in reducing head injuries in all of school sports and we are raising some questions that we will seek to get answered with the help of research partners.

“We are addressing education and detection and after care in unprecedented ways. We are proud of what we’ve done but we are far from satisfied. We are going to continually be on the lookout for ways to make school sports even safer than they are already.”

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Posted by Ryan Zuke

Ryan is the sports editor for the Big Rapids Pioneer, covering local prep sports and Ferris State athletics. He can be contacted at (231) 592-8363 or rzuke@pioneergroup.com.

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