Concussions have fast become one of the biggest hot-button issues in athletics today. Youth football has borne the brunt of criticism and despite advances in equipment and coaching methods, concussions remain extremely common at all levels of the game, with younger players being at particular risk.
Vision training may be an unexpected part of the solution. While always a peripheral component of athletics, vision-sharpening drills have shown some promise in making players quicker to respond to threats, and hopefully more able to avoid injury.
Violent collisions are a fact of life for football players. When it comes right down to it, the sport basically revolves around them. While these head-to-head crashes have long been acknowledged, it’s only relatively recently that their long-term effects have come to light.
An enormous 2013 lawsuit brought against the NFL by retired players put an exclamation point on several years of evidence that concussions sustained while playing for the league had severe lasting effects. The high-profile suicide of former linebacker Junior Seau made the threat even more impossible to ignore.
The danger seems to lie in the permanent damage that the sport can cause to the brain. A concussion occurs when the brain is shaken inside the skull, almost always the result of a hard impact – such as those that occur when two lineman crash into one another, or when a receiver is hit after a crash. Concussions are serious injuries in their own right, but even larger problems surface when a player receives another without fully healing from the first.
Recovering from a brain injury, no matter how apparently minor, is no easy task. And if a player chooses or is pressured into performing shortly after a concussion, they may receive another. Multiple concussions seem to have an exponentially nastier effect on the brain and may be one of the root causes of severe later-life health problems, including memory loss, depression, and a degenerative disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Youth at Risk
Youth players are at just as much risk from concussions as adults, if not more. Even though younger players are lighter, and it may be hard to imagine two pee-wee players doing serious damage to one another, research has shown that concussions are still prevalent in youth leagues.
One study tracked several teams of 9-12 year-old players and found that on average, each received 240 impacts each season. While most of these were less severe than those suffered by older players, the study clarified that “some recorded high magnitude impacts were similar to those seen at the high school and college level.”
Even ignoring those numbers, youth players face their own set of unique difficulties. First, pre-teen and teen players are receiving hits during critical periods for brain developments. The exact effects that transitional period has on concussion severity are still being studied; however, it has been found that playing in 12 and younger leagues was a major predictive factor in the later-life mental function of professional athletes, with those who did participate in youth leagues displaying significantly more symptoms of cognitive decline. Second, youth players have less developed neck and upper body muscles, and are less able to absorb impacts safely.
Education has been the first line of defense for coaches looking to keep youth players safe. Injuries that would have long been cause for a “shake it off” speech are now more closely monitored than before. Recognizing and responding to concussions is critical. More and more participants are now being taught to recognize the signs and pick up on potential head injuries.
Changing practice styles has also shown promise in reducing concussion rates. The same study that monitored 9- to 12-year-olds found that the most severe impacts for most children occurred during practice. Furthermore, the one team that had the lowest number of impacts was notable for both practicing less often, and for emphasizing a non-contact approach when they did practice.
Equipment has also taken recent strides forward to counter the threat. Studies conducted after the initial furor over concussions have found that the helmets used in most leagues were lacking in protection against lateral and rotational impacts, making a clear case for a redesign. Several new helmets have emerged since, each taking aim at reducing a player’s odds of sustaining a concussion. However, as of now, none have proven fully effective.
Plenty of athletic programs have made use of vision training before now. Sharp visual acuity is a necessity for top performers in just about every sport. Vision training focuses on improving that acuity and has shown signs of effectiveness before. A 2010-2011 study performed at the University of Cincinnati found that vision training provided a considerable boost to baseball players’ performance, including a healthy bump to batting average.
Some of the same techniques that gave Cincinnati’s baseball team its edge may prove useful in preventing concussions. The university instituted a similar program for their football team and saw a major dip in the rate of concussions suffered by their players.
One of the devices behind that success is a lightboard, a training tool that has players respond to patterns of light. Working with it may improve response time and peripheral vision – obviously two key attributes for a football player reacting to an incoming opponent.