Heading off damage: Risk of concussion spurs debate on using headguards
Loyola defender Emily Blabolil has been wearing padded headgear this season after sustaining a concussion and seizure that kept her off the field for most of last season.
(Brian Valentin/Staff Photographer)
April 12, 2010By GEORGE WILCOX firstname.lastname@example.org
GIRLS SOCCER -- Emily Blabolil's life changed last April 23.
It was a day Blabolil's teammates will remember for a long time. Blabolil's coach, Craig Snower, may never forget it.
On that day, Maine South became the first team to beat the Ramblers, 3-2, to end a 12-game unbeaten streak.
But the score didn't matter.
Blabolil, then a junior defender, went up to head a ball, but collided with another teammate. Blabolil crumpled to the ground and could not get up. She suffered a concussion, her second in three months, then had a seizure on the field while being attended by an athletic trainer.
Rushed to the hospital where she eventually recovered, she missed the rest of the season, which concluded in the sectional semifinals for the first time in school history.
A year later, Blabolil has returned to Loyola's starting lineup, but the 5-foot-4 Evanston resident is taking precautions. Snower did not allow her to return to the field without a headguard. He's making her play the rest of her career -- both high school and club -- using head protection.
"When I came back to club (for FC United), at first, it was frustrating," said Blabolil, who also wears a mouth guard. "Getting back into it, I was nervous. I was hesitant and had to adjust to the headgear."
It took the veteran coach several years and one scary moment on the field to realize that headguards perhaps should be considered standard equipment for his soccer players.
"The first time I realized (players wore) it was three to four years ago. I had a former club player, a New Trier girl, wear one on the team," Snower said. "I've seen them, but I never thought about them until Emily got hurt."
Snower called Jess Wall, the headgear-wearing New Trier player. The Glencoe native is currently a sophomore midfielder for Amherst College in Massachusetts. Snower said Wall told him she had suffered four concussions in three years while playing in high school and club and sustained another in college.
This season, four Ramblers wear headguards, which look like a padded headband. Each player has a different reason for using one.
Junior forward Laura Gardner also was ordered by Snower to wear protection after suffering a concussion related to heat exhaustion while playing in a club tournament in Arizona in February.
"My injury was really minor (compared to Blabolil's)," Gardner said. "I think it took a couple of days to adjust. After a while, you get used to it. I can't imagine playing without it."
Senior defender Kathleen Carroll joined in after suffering a minor concussion in the spring. Carroll complained of headaches after heading balls and was taken to an emergency room.
"I'm more confident," Carroll said. "I'm not timid to go after head balls."
Sophomore Meaghan Smith, who made a personal decision to don the headguard, told Snower she is "more confident going up for headers."
But not all coaches believe headguards are the answer. Resurrection coach Tony Silvio, whose Bandits compete with the Ramblers in the GCAC, has known about the protective devices for several years.
"I would consider, but I don't think it matters," he said.
Silvio is not alone. Neither Maine East girls coach Julie Dickinson nor Maine South girls coach J.J. Crawford requires girls to wear headguards.
"I could see why girls would want to wear them," said Dickinson, a former player at Maine South. "Problem is, I am of a generation that hits the ball with your head, and that's it. Maybe I am more old-school."
Maine South senior Amanda Brait donned a headguard after suffering a concussion, but no longer.
Crawford said once more information is available from long-term studies on head injuries, he may change his mind.
"That will affect me," he said. "The velocity of a ball coming down from a punt onto the head adds up. It's like a boxer that eventually gets that punch-drunk feeling. It's better than nothing, but for whatever reason, it's not caught on."
Loyola's Snower believes players are more likely to suffer concussions from colliding heads rather than actually heading balls. He said he was close to mandating that all of his players wear the headguards.
"The manufacturer claims that it reduces impact by 50 percent," Snower said. "I don't know if it's true or not. My point is if it reduces it at all, girls do not have to suffer (head) injuries. There is no reason not to give it a shot."
It's taking some time for other Loyola players to join in. Even Emily's sister Abby, a junior midfielder, does not wear one during games.
"We're trying to get her to (wear it)," Emily said. "Maybe in the future. As of now, she has not approved of it. She loves headers and is one of our best players in the air. I'm sure she'll have my mom (Jill) force her to wear it. Abby has one in her bag. She practices with it, but has not used it in a game yet."
The safety equipment is only slowly being accepted. For Glenbrook South, senior midfielder Kelly Brait is one of the only Titans to own one.
The most popular headguard by San Diego-based Full 90 sells for $29.99. The company's Web site includes extensive studies and news articles about reducing head injuries in soccer. It cites a McGill University study from 2002 that "found that more than 60 percent of college-level soccer players reported concussion symptoms (headache, nausea, dizziness, amnesia, light sensitivity, etc.) during a single season."
In 2007, the Journal of Athletic Training reported that girls were more likely than boys to suffer concussions and that girls soccer ranked second to football for reported concussions among high school sports.
"I don't think it's a girls issue or a boys issue as much as the modern training and speed training that we do," Snower said. "Athletes in general are bigger, faster and stronger than 20 years ago when I played."
Athletic trainers and coaches are becoming more aware of head injuries than in the past.
For the first time this spring, Loyola's girls soccer players took the school's ImPACT exam previously offered to only football players. Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing is an online computer program that measures each player's reactions before the season as a baseline. After a player suffers a concussion, the athlete takes the test again before being cleared to play.
Loyola athletic director Patrick Mahoney said he is hoping to give the preseason ImPACT test to future Loyola athletes in high contact sports such as boys soccer and boys lacrosse.
"It's a tool to help determine if a kid is over the symptoms of a concussion," Mahoney said. "It doesn't prevent concussions."
Mahoney, along with Snower, is looking at requiring headguards for future Loyola soccer players, both boys and girls.
-- Matt Harness contributed