Changing the Concussion Mindset—Maybe Impossible?

by Bill Newton

Rule changes. New protective head gear. How to tackle properly. These are just some of the things being put into place, collegiately and professionally, to stem the tide of concussions. But the root core of the problem still revolves around the mindset. Lower the boom on the other guy, and if the boom’s lowered on you…take it like a man. Shake it off. SHAKE IT OFF! How many times have we all heard this, whether you played organized sports or not.

Now, let’s go back in time for the moment. This mindset, this culture if you will, starts at an early age—pre Pop Warner. When your “Pops” puts up a tackling dummy in the back yard and instructs his 5-year old twin boys to knock the stuffings out of it, the hook is set. When he has one twin go one-on-one with the other, this hook just became barbed. Somebody gets their head banged on the ground and sees stars, literally. But Pops and the other twin are there to save the day. Get up. You’re alright. Be tough. Above all, don’t show weakness.

If you think this doesn’t still go on these days, to one degree or another, you’ve got your head in the sand. Football, Rugby, Hockey…toughness is the name of the game. The tougher you are—at all levels of sport—the more you start, the more respect you get, and the more you win. And the more you set yourself up. Smart tough is one thing, dumb tough is another, and that can lead to bigger problems down the road.

What is smart tough? Simple! As a player, you already know the differences. Ankles can be re-taped and you’re back in the game. A twisted knee and an ACL tear are two different things—one, you might be back in the game, the other requires surgery. But neither is going to affect life down the road. If you want to tough it out, and your coach says go get ‘em, then step back on that field. You might make the injury worse, but you won’t become a vegetable some day.

Here’s dumb tough! It starts with everything above the neck. It’s unimaginable that when an athlete really gets his bell rung, he or she doesn’t realize that things aren’t right. Dizzy, nausea, double-vision—there’s nothing normal about that. Puking on the sidelines is a long way from watching that ankle swell to the size of a cantaloupe. Yet, you gotta be tough. That’s what you’ve been told you’re entire life. Even if you’re a Rhodes Scholar, and you can still walk, your psyche tells you to get back in the game. Your subconscious can’t help you because it’s out of commission. What you might be facing is the fact that someday in the future, you may not know your name, your friends’ names, or what part of the planet you’re on. A cane is useless because you have no idea where you left it last…worse yet, how to even use it anymore.

There’s the story of the high school running back that got his clock cleaned, and even though he was flat on his back seeing double, he was smart enough to know that he wasn’t seeing two fingers held up by the trainer. He quickly mumbled, “One.” Guess what? He was back in the game.

They got it right when they said “old habits die hard.” Players been thrust into an environment that stresses toughness and that’s what they rely on. At what point do athletes, coaches, management…whoever, concede that head trauma is a matter of life and death?

Of course there’s an issue with the fans too. “Pops” took them to how many hockey and wrestling matches? Who’s counting, right? Violence begats violence. The fans demand toughness. They have no interest in wimps. And owners have no desire to see attendance dwindle.

Do you detect a vicious cycle here? Without “dumb tough” in the game, the fans don’t get their money’s worth.  If the players start exercising “smart tough,” then post head trauma doesn’t exist, or if it does, it’s in a minor way. Of course from the owner’s prospective, lack of “dumb tough” is…well, it’s bad for business. It’s not what the fans came to see.

Therein lays the quandary. If “dumb tough” were to be removed from all contact sports, how much does that affect the future of the sport? Or for that matter, how much does it affect society and the fans that thirst for it?

This just may be one of those “impossibles.” All of the research in the world won’t change the mindset, or lessen the number of concussions occurring annually. We just end up with better ways to diagnose and treat the problem.

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