Over the course of some athletes’ careers, there are often points when their bodies – whether due to fatigue or injury – will tell them to stop playing. Yet, athletes are often encouraged to be “mentally tough” and push through that physical pain if they can. And sometimes that show of mental strength helps energize the player and his or her team in an inspiring way.
However, that attitude of being mentally strong and playing through the pain periodically comes at a crossroads with both the player’s physical and mental health. More specifically, I’m talking about concussions and the way they are treated, even at the highest level of sports.
A broken finger, for example, is something physically limiting and painful, but won’t challenge a player’s mental health down the road. Alternatively, a concussion – when a physical blow shakes and damages the brain – can have lasting impacts on players, many of which cannot be diagnosed and aren’t apparent until later in life.
There have been strides made in concussion awareness. The NFL has improved its policy on concussion testing and has an independent neurotrauma consultant on the sidelines to test players rather than team doctors alone.
Unfortunately, some sports, like professional soccer, are far behind the curve. Just last Wednesday, in the Nov. 30 Major League Soccer semifinal between Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact, Montreal’s Hernan Bernardello collided with Toronto’s Jozy Altidore and appeared to be momentarily knocked unconscious. Less than two minutes later, he was back in the game.
If Bernardello was in a boxing match, the fight would have been over. So why then is it ok to immediately send that player back on the field in a sport that requires miles of running, when he wouldn’t even be allowed to continue in a hand-to-hand combat sport?
It’s neither the first nor the last time this will happen. If you remember the 2014 World Cup final, German player Christoph Kramer was knocked unconscious and looked clearly disoriented after being hit, but was allowed to continue playing for 14 minutes. A similar incident occurred with the Netherlands’ Vincent Janssen a few weeks ago.
Kramer later said he had to ask the referee if he was playing in the World Cup final and that he had no recollection of how he got into the training rooms and couldn’t remember the first half of the game.
If you’re going to ask players to be mentally tough, you have to make sure that the brain, the thing allowing them to be mentally tough, is actually cared for.
A big problem with concussion protocol is the fact that there is no test that can definitively show whether or not a concussion happened. It’s also hard for team doctors – whose job it is to get players back on the field – to tell players – who often claim they’re fine – that they cannot go back on the field if their symptoms aren’t entirely evident.
Putting a concussed player immediately back on the field is extremely hazardous to the player’s health. Especially in sports like soccer, the physical stress of running can multiply the already deleterious effects of concussions due to the way they complicate blood flow to and from the brain.
For professional teams, there needs to be independent concussion analysts like in the NFL. It’s much tougher in youth and collegiate sports where there is a huge culture of athletes trying to self-diagnose and play through concussions, especially with inadequate medical analysis immediately available.
It’s crucial to encourage more concussion education and a dialogue, especially with younger players who think they can just “shake off” their concussions like any other injury, because it’s much more than just physical.
For some contact sports, like football and hockey, concussions may prove inevitable, but it is crucial to ensure that athletes – especially youth and collegiate athletes with still-developing brains – don’t return too quickly from an injury that can cause lifelong mental damage.