We’ve seen time and time again how professional athletes will often admit to hiding concussion symptoms in order to play. Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew, and former Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher have publicly stated that they either have or would lie about a concussion to keep playing. In fact, a recent survey of NFL players showed that 85% said they would play in the Super Bowl with a concussion.
It is likely that athletes of all ages and skill levels deny having concussion symptoms. Fear of losing their positions on the teams, pressure to win, or even pressure from parents and coaches might play a role.
How common is this problem among high school athletes?
A study released in the American Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that it is extremely common for high school athletes to play with concussion symptoms and avoid telling their coaches.
Researchers at the University of Washington surveyed high school football players and girls’ soccer players and their parents at 20 high schools. They discovered some fairly frightening information:
• The incidence of concussions was similar between sports – 11.1% for girls’ soccer and 10.4% for football.
• 69% of the injured athletes played with concussion symptoms.
• 40% admitted that the coaches were unaware of their concussions, despite signing a statement at the beginning of the season that said that they would report symptoms to their coaches.
• Athletes often did not tell their parents about concussions, as the weekly surveys often differed between the athletes and their parents.
What can we do to encourage athletes to report concussions?
The study illustrates just how difficult of a problem concussions in sports is. If we really want to decrease some of the long-term effects of brain injuries from athletics, we will have to attack the problem from many angles.
Education of coaches about concussion symptoms, ensuring proper evaluation of every player with a head injury, baseline neurocognitive testing, preventing return to play until an athlete’s neurocognitive performance has returned to normal, and much more are necessary.
All of those ideas will only be marginally effective, though, if athletes continue to hide concussions and deny they are having symptoms. Maybe it’s the fear of looking weak or the tremendous pressure to win at all costs, but this issue seems embedded in the culture of youth sports. The bigger questions are if and how we can change those attitudes. What can we do to encourage athletes to tell coaches, parents, athletic trainers and team doctors about head injuries?
Rivara FP, Schiff MA, Chrisman SP, Chung SK, Ellenbogen RG, Herring SA. The Effect of Coach Education on Reporting of Concussions Among High School Athletes After Passage of a Concussion Law. Am J Sports Med; published online before print February 25, 2014.