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I’m in a unique life chapter right now where my work with BIPRI intersects with my role as a coach with a premier youth wrestling club in Tennessee. I’ve always worked diligently at building a coaching platform that places a high value on injury prevention and safety in my athletes, and my position with BIPRI has allowed me an added focus on the importance of brain health related to youth sports.
I wanted to provide some practical recommendations to parents, coaches, and youth wrestlers on ways to reduce the likelihood of concussions during the competition season. As a disclaimer, these recommendations are my own, based on my experience with the sport as an athlete, a coach, and father of a youth wrestler.
There is a lot of comparison data out there on concussion rates in youth, high school and college sports. Most studies show wrestling in the top 25% of sports in the total number of concussions – regardless of level of competition. Compared to other sports, wrestling has some concussion trends that are unique in terms of where the concussions occur (practice or competition) and the likelihood of a participant getting a concussion as level of competition increases.
Wrestling is one of the only sports where statistically a participant is more likely to get a concussion in college than in high school and is equally likely to get a concussion at practice as in a competition. I think it is important to study this data, but priority energy should be focused on controlling the factors that can help reduce concussions or the severity of injury when an athlete receives a dramatic blow to the head.
There are several factors that coaches can control to reduce the prevalence of concussion in their program. First is education. Coaches should talk with their teams and parents about the inherent dangers of concussions and prioritize the health and wellbeing of the athlete when a potential injury occurs.
Coaches need to recognize and communicate that concussions often don’t show themselves until hours or days after the injury occurs. An athlete’s status and symptoms should be tracked for days following a possible concussive event.
For coaches of beginner wrestlers, it is extremely important that the athletes have the prerequisite strength and body control necessary to control their head and neck when they are falling to the mat, before they enter competition. This is one reason why we put such a high priority on gymnastics and landing mechanics in our beginner wrestlers at our club.
Wrestling is a unique sport in that as many as 40% of concussions result from a blow to the head (not associated with head of the other athlete). In other words, a very high percentage of concussions in wrestling occur when the head hits the mat, as opposed to a body part of a competitor. Increasing a young wrestler’s ability to control the head and neck when lifted and landing is a crucial item in reducing the chance of a head injury. Coaches must also focus on teaching the beginner athlete to always have their head up during practice and matches. Many head blows occur in youth wrestling because athletes drop and swing their head based on body movements. This dipping and swinging of the head can increase injury opportunity for both athletes in that competition.
It is also important that coaches provide the safest practice environment as possible. In a youth club setting, where space is often at a premium, it is easy to put too many partner groups on the mat at a given time. Many injuries occur in wrestling because one partner group falls into another and coaches must make grouping modifications to their mat area, as drill or competition speed picks up. Teaching and slow learning sessions can include higher numbers on the mat, but full speed drilling and combat requires much more space for each group.
Program culture can also impact injury prevention. Wrestling is naturally a very physical sport, but at its essence, wrestling is designed as a method of showing physical dominance in a non-violent way. The rules of wrestling preclude an athlete from punching, kicking, choking or slamming their opponent; all legal technical holds do not endanger joints – like in many submission disciplines. The goal of the sport is to show dominance by control.
I believe coaches should promote this sport goal and establish a culture of technical excellence as opposed to indiscriminate physicality. Heavy hands, hard takedowns, cross faces, and maximal allowable force should be utilized, but programs that emphasize “bully wrestling” should not have a place of honor in our sport.
Appropriate fitting headgear and mouth pieces may provide a slight decrease in the likelihood of a concussion. Obviously, headgear can help dissipate a direct blow to the side of the head. But wrestling headgear does not provide any help in blows that can occur away from the ear coverings. There are headgear types that have padding on the forehead, which can provide some protection, but in my experience, this protection designed as a defensive tool gets used offensively, therefore making it not very efficient at concussion prevention.
Proper fitting mouthguards can provide some force-minimizing effects to direct blows to the jaw, but research is inconclusive with regards to direct benefits for preventing concussions. Mouth guards will significantly reduce the likelihood of tooth damage resulting from a direct blow to the face, which is the primary reason many athletes choose to use this tool.
Not surprisingly, research shows that athletes that are well hydrated, well fed, well rested, and in a high state of physical preparedness, are less likely to get a concussion as part of their sport participation. These athletes also recover from concussions at a much better rate than athletes that are lacking in these areas.
It is extremely important that athletes eat, sleep, train, and hydrate properly to maintain the highest performance levels. Improper weight management in wrestlers can significantly increase general injury and concussion risk.
There are many supplements that can positively impact brain health, but fish oil supplementation has been shown to greatly reduce the symptomatic effects of concussion on the brain. (For specific data on this subject, I recommend Dr. Michael D. Lewis’s When Brains Collide: What Every Athlete and Parent Should Know About the Prevention and Treatment of Concussions and Head Injuries.) This low-cost supplement can be a great addition to a wrestler’s nutrition plan; it may also provide many health benefits related to performance and recovery. BIPRI offers a very high quality, affordable, product for both adults and children that my entire family uses daily.
In the unfortunate event that an athlete receives a concussion, the athlete should see a physician immediately. Return to practice and play decisions should be communicated from the doctor or athletic training staff to the athlete, parents and coaching staff. Athletes should follow prescribed rehabilitation instructions following a concussion and should not return to participation until medically cleared to do so. Athletes that return to play too soon are at a much higher risk of sustaining another concussion, subsequently putting themselves at risk for long term brain functioning issues.
Parents may want to consider a baseline concussion test on their athletes at the start of the season. There are many cognitive tests available, such as the ImPACT Test, which provides an objective performance score based on a series of questions. These questions will assist a medical professional in determining if the athlete has had a concussion. They can also provide a subjective measure of return-to-play readiness.
With my own son, I’ve chosen to have an additional baseline neurologic assessment done in order to have an actual measurement of brain performance. This test will be very valuable in the event of a concussion for Caleb, in that his medical providers will have actual preinjury performance metrics data to use to determine his return-to-play readiness. BIPRI is the only provider in Middle TN that provides this service, and I am grateful that I have been able to use this scan on all my children.
Sport participation will always come with slight amount of risk, but the physical, mental and spiritual value most athletes get from sport typically far outweighs the risk of injury of participation. It is important that athletes, parents, and coaches understand injury risks and subsequently take steps to reduce the likelihood of injury. In my mind, wrestling offers value like no other sport, and I hope to provide an environment within our program where athletes are educated and well-prepared for the battles that happen on and off the mat.
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