They hope to use the data to recommend a safe hit count – a number after which young players should rest or have neurological testing. They have also started videotaping the hits to figure out which kinds of blows seem to be causing the most brain trauma.
“At the end of the day, we’re hoping to find out if those impairments are correlated with any visual cues,” Dr. Talavage said. “We’re trying to give the coaches visual markers and information to be able to intervene and prevent a kid from getting to that point.”
How about a hit count?
Most pro football teams typically reserve heavy contact for training camp and game days, yet most high-school teams say they are hitting in practice two to three times per week.
Limiting the exposure to hits sounds like an easy way to help manage the risk. But many youth football coaches would argue there are other factors to consider.
Many say contact practices provides valuable learning time for kids figuring out how to safely deliver and absorb hits, especially those new to the game. The pros can get to game day without contact practices because they have superior conditioning and hitting experience.
“You need to have two days where you bang and run things at full speed because these kids are just learning, and they wouldn’t be safe on game day without that learning,” said Mr. Rocca, who was an offensive lineman for the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats before taking up coaching. “I’m not saying you need to have contact throughout the whole practice or take guys right to the ground, but you need to have a period of 12-on-12 when they go full-tilt to get them ready.”
Others puzzle over the logistics of actually keeping track of the hits.
“That study looks good, but hard to implement,” said Jeremy Conn, football coach at Ballenas Secondary School on Vancouver Island and a member of the B.C. High School Football Association’s concussion committee.
“Coaches in the [United States] are often paid to coach, whereas here coaches [and trainers] are all volunteers. So it would be hard to have the time to set up and do that.”
Many wonder what would constitute a hit, who would keep track and how schools, clubs and parents could afford the testing.
“Anything that creates a safe environment would be a good thing,” said John Paton, executive director of the Alberta Schools’ Athletic Association. “It becomes an issue of affordability because if you’re looking at testing, re-testing, who’s going to do the re-testing? Are they sufficiently qualified?”
Catching up to the baseline trend
MedStar Health Research Institute in Baltimore, Md., this year released results of its 11-year survey on the incidence of concussions in 12 high-school sports in a large public-school system in the United States. It found that football was responsible for more than half the 2,651 concussions recorded between 1997 and 2008. In the U.S., 31 states and the District of Columbia have passed a student-athlete concussion law governing things like return-to-play protocols and concussion-recognition training. Eleven more have similar legislation pending.
There is no such law in any of Canada’s provinces or territories.
Clinical Medicine Research Group Ltd., a group licensed to administer the ImPACT neurological test, says that while interest in baseline testing for hockey players has skyrocketed recently, it can’t say the same for football.
For example, in Ontario, the group says it has had inquiries about its programs, including baseline testing, from organizations representing more than 95 per cent of the minor-hockey players in the province. By comparison, they have only heard from organizations (schools and school boards) representing less than 2 per cent of Ontario’s high-school football players.
“I can tell you we have more downhill skiers in our database than football players,” said Johnny Chehade, director with CMRG’s concussion-management program. “We have a long way to go in reaching football teams in terms of baseline testing.”
Canadians taking action
Education and training is under way all across Canada, but still, you find some teens who don’t feel comfortable disclosing symptoms.