Player Welfare Feature

28/03/2013

Player Welfare Feature

                                         Concussion – using your head not losing it

Recently alarm and ensuing discussions have again surfaced regarding heavy head contacts and concussions in sport. I enjoyed Peter Fitzsimons’ thoughts and reactions in his SMH column. It crystallised for me what has been a vexing problem for our sport and particularly so as a coach.

The damning evidence available now of what the short and long term holds for players in collision sports suffering from head collisions demands immediate action. The changing demands and “improvements” of collision sports have amplified these dangers.

                                                      The long term issues

Reading about guys who are in their 40s or 50s not remembering their children’s names is scary but those guys finished playing in the 80s or 90s. Ask any of the experts in the physical performance area of your club how much more powerful, heavier and faster the average player is compared to two or three decades ago.

                                                            Speed kills

I am certain we can all see the speed of the modern game compared to those times, combined with these more powerful athletes leads to much greater force in the collisions. I don’t think there is any evidence that skulls have gotten thicker or brains more resilient to bruising in that period.

                                                             Let’s fix it

Surely all of us who love the game and more so those making a living out of the game or responsible for its administration, can take steps to make a difference ASAP to the dangers often reinforced or heightened by both the rules and culture of our sport.

Yes there have been some very positive steps taken recently in the NRL by medicos limiting the dangers for players through possible penalties if clubs allow players to continue or resume playing when obviously concussed.

                                                       Let’s use sharper tools

But I feel there are more things we can do. Rules and regulations could help. The first could be a medical register that checks on any player at any age progressing to the next level with a “cause for concern” history of concussion. To show how long this has been going on, in the 70s we used to refer to these guys as ‘soft heads’ and no, they were never required to pass medicals. There were no work place safety regulations in those dark days.

In boxing I believe combatants must meet not only medical checks but also competency levels to prove they are capable of defending themselves with a similarly competent opponent. Why can’t we do something like that in footy?

                                             Coaches can have great impact too

There are guys playing even at the top level who I believe are prone to this type of injury for various reasons. One of these is skill levels.

Can you think of some players who seem to get hit around the head more often than others when carrying the ball? Yeah me too. Have you ever thought about why? I reckon in many cases it’s because the player has not developed the skills of self-protection. Could we not set up a registration system requiring players to show they have such skills before they progress to the next level of representative age group footy for instance?

Equally the game’s rules currently reinforce the ball carriers lack of need to carry the ball with self-protection skills because as fans we all clap and cheer when the high tackler is penalised! We unintentionally are reinforcing that player to carry in the same manner again because we like it when we get penalties and get down the other end! There is no need to change and no thought for his welfare.

There are some guys playing in the NRL who do not know where to put their head when executing a tackle. They too are prone to head injury.

This one is also another coaching issue and could easily be an important component of the competency requirement I am proposing. When I took my one day per week role coaching tackle technique at Super Rugby Brumbies I was surprised at my brief research showing how many appeared to have issues with their feet, shoulder and head placement when tackling.

So that was my first commitment to each of them – your personal safety when tackling is number one priority for me! We consistently practice where and how to put your head in every tackle you make – and we will continue to incorporate it in every tackling and video session we do.

During an early season Rebels v Brumbies match, one of these high speed collisions caused James O’Connor to be taken from the field after a serious head knock – if you check that attempted tackle you will see what I mean by where to NOT put your head.

The following sideline scene of JOC appearing fit and ready to go but told “no way” by club medical staff is often met with great frustration from player, teammates, coaches and fans. All involved in professional sport need to take stock of our long held association of sport’s toughness culture. Surely no one expects a guy to subject himself to any risk to his head.

                                               Heads we win or tails you lose

We once had a head bin rule in footy to assist medical staff and players to reach optimal health decisions on these situations without causing issues to interchange numbers. It got KO’d by coaches who abused it. Maybe a licensing system for coaches could KO any coach or doctor even thinking of abusing such a rule if it were to be reintroduced to protect all players at all levels from this concerning aspect of our great sports.