A lot has changed since Brett Timmons helped lead Tulane to an undefeated season in 1998.
“Back then the word ‘concussion’ meant getting knocked out — it didn’t mean getting your bell rung,” Timmons said.
Timmons, once a dominating linebacker at the college level, is now the head football coach and athletic director at Out-of-Door Academy (ODA), a private school near Lakewood Ranch, Fla. He and his coaching staff stood at the forefront of the concussion prevention movement in 2011 when ODA invested in ImPACT, the most-widely used and most scientifically validated computerized concussion evaluation system in the world. At the time they were the only football program out of 18 local high schools (private and public) to utilize ImPACT, located inside ODA’s on-campus graphic arts/computer lab.
High school football coaches are already required by the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) to take a 20-minute concussion class prior to every season. Timmons and his staff, however, believe more education is needed.
While the team’s trainer goes through concussion treatment protocol with parents prior to each season, the “gladiator mentality” takes over for many players during games. Kids want to play with pain, no matter the cost, an ideology that football has built its foundation upon. Many high school — and college — football coaches also employ that old school “gladiators mentality,” according to Timmons, who has had two players experience concussions in his eight seasons as head coach at ODA.
“I think the rules are properly in place, it’s just a matter of coaches coaching their players the right way,” Timmons said. “We have a lot of coaches who aren’t properly educated. As time goes and methods change, some coaches may still be teaching antiquated messages.”
Improper tackling techniques, such as aiming for the head, are still being widely taught despite newly implemented rules against them during games. But even with the new rules in place, some coaches are now telling their players to “aim low” when tackling.
“You may be preventing head injuries, but now we’re seeing more ACL, MCL and knee injuries because guys are now targeting those areas,” Timmons said.
With an estimated 4 to 5 million concussions occurring annually, Timmons said that all of ODA’s athletic programs in contact sports now require their athletes to undergo extensive preseason ImPACT testing, a method that “provides baseline data for us prior to our first day of contact.”
“If there’s a head injury in a game, now we know where this player was before, and we build off that to help improve his safety,” Timmons said.
Preventative Medical Specialist Dr. Victor Coronado says the chances of getting a concussion while playing high school football are approximately three times higher than any other sport. Coronado collaborated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to help form HeadsUp, a program that promotes concussion awareness among high school athletes, coaches and parents.
“Sixty-five percent of concussions occur among children between five and 18 years of age,” Coronado said. “Children and teens are more likely to get a concussion than adults, and they take longer to recover.”
Because of the new focus by doctors and medical specialists on concussions, coaches like Timmons can now utilize new technologies to help improve safety for his still-developing players.
New methods on the horizon
With ImPACT, a players’ return to action isn’t just solely based on his visible, physical symptoms. The neurocognitive tests let coaches know that while a player might not be showing any visible symptoms, his brain could still be suffering from internal damage. “That baseline data gives us another safety net,” Timmons said.
Timmons’ team practices with full contact just once a week. His program has also made a habit of discarding helmets that are older than 10 years. Additionally, heavily-padded helmets and stricter statewide rules on granting a player physical clearance to return to action aren’t the only ways to help prevent concussions.
Dyslexia tests on the sidelines, during games, are a new method to help better gauge a players’ vision and overall mental state following a bit hit or head-to-head collision. They help better decide if a player is both mentally and physically suited to return to the game. Timmons said he’ll look more into the dyslexia tests this summer and could implement them as early as 2014.
But technology can backfire for certain players who, away from the football field, live mostly sedentary lifestyles playing too many video games or spending too much time online. New technologies in physical training methods have also created bigger, stronger and faster athletes than before.
“Kids have gotten bigger, stronger and faster, so the point of impact is a lot more severe than when I played. Kids also aren’t as active as they used to be, either,” Timmons said.
From the players and parents to the coaches and trainers, education remains the key for concussion prevention.
“We need to put education at the forefront and continue to teach people about it,” Timmons said.
“Putting a warning label on cigarettes won’t stop people from smoking cigarettes, but at least you know the risk.”
Follow Chris Dell on Twitter @MaddJournalist