Overshadowed by the biggest local sports story in 35 years (if you haven’t heard yet, the Seahawks won a pretty big football game a week ago), a group of concussion prevention advocates visited the Super Bowl in New York to announce a program they hope will reduce long-term brain damage in athletes.
Flanked by former NFL stars, Sports Legacy Institute director Christopher Nowinski announced Hit Count, a program that uses sensors to count and measure the impact of hits suffered by athletes.
The program was inspired by measures taken by baseball coaches to avoid damaging the arms of their pitchers. Baseball coaches use a count of pitches thrown, in an effort to avoid players throwing too much. Many times a pitch count is mandated by youth leagues.
“The idea was, can we develop a pitch count for the brain?” Nowinski said. “Right now we have no limits to how many times you can hit an athlete in the head, and we don’t think that’s a great idea.”
Nowinski believes counting hard hits to the head will help coaches and parents reduce the number of hits athletes take over the course of a season. He says the technology and concept also can easily be used for other sports and even weekend warriors who ski, bike or other sports that include the risk of head injury.
But football remains the sport with the highest risk. The sad thing, Noqinaki says, is many of the hits youth players take aren’t necessary.
According to SLI statistics, there are 4 million youth football players in the United States taking a combined 1.5 billion hits to the head per year. Nowinski says the goal for Hit Count is to quickly reduce those hits by a third.
“Of those 1.5 billion hits, you can probably easily say that 500 million of them are unnecessary,” Nowinski said. “Five hundred million of them are happening in practice where they aren’t needed to teach the game safely, to teach athletes how to play. ... To get that first 500 million off the record, it would not even change the way the game looked. You wouldn’t even have to change the rules.”
However, counting blows to the head isn’t nearly as simple as counting pitches in a baseball game.
During the Super Bowl, SLI announced the release of a new device it thinks is the first of many that will help coaches, parents and players monitor head impact. G-Force Tracker is a sensor that can be worn inside a helmet or on a headband to record the number and force of hits to the head.
While a panel of scientists from the United States and Canada is still working to set a standard for how many hits is too many, they’ve already set the threshold for the impacts at 20 Gs. This is a subconcussive level, Nowinski said, but the threshold is low for a reason.
“There is evidence that hits that don’t cause concussions may be causing brain changes,” Nowinski said.
The G-Force Trackers sell for $150 plus a monthly fee of $8 after the first year, according to gforcetracker.com. The number and force of the hits is recorded by the sensors and can be accessed by coaches and parents online.
Former New England Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, who retired because of multiple concussions, compared the device to the popular Fitbit wristbands ($130) people use to monitor exercise.
“They’re awesome but what Hit Count is doing is more awesome,” said Johnson, who has pledged his brain to concussion research.
John Pizzi, a secondary school athletic director in Riverdale, N.Y., says his athletes used modern concussion prevention exercise and protocols, but said about 12 percent of his middle and high school athletes suffered concussions last year.
Starting in the fall, Pizzi says the school will use sensors and the Hit Count protocol for football, soccer and lacrosse.
“I believe that the next phase in keeping our students safe is Hit Count,” Pizzi said. “... We will do everything we can to protect our student athletes.”
Mike Haynes, a Hall of Fame linebacker who has also pledged his brain to research, said he will use Hit Count to monitor his sons and their youth team, which he coaches.
“For me it’s all about proper coaching, it’s about recognizing what a concussion is, and if you need to get your kid off the field you need to have some guides to make those decisions,” Haynes said. “Because a lot of times concussions do go undiagnosed. And I’d say most times they go undiagnosed.
“The player doesn’t know he has a concussion. Why? He can still tell you the day of the week, he can tell you who all his teammates are. The only thing that he has is this little light headache that he can’t explain. Well, that little light headache is the reason he should be off the field.”Craig Hill: 253-597-8497 firstname.lastname@example.org thenewstribune.com/fitness theolympian.com/fitness @AdventureGuys