I’ve been giving a bit of thought to all the reports of concussions in the news, lately. Football players, ice hockey players, soccer players… not to mention all the reports of kids heading to the ER. Conflicting as those reports may be — some say more pre-teens are being treated, some say more high-school age teens are being treated — the picture is still pretty significant. And the concern is increasingly palpable.
The message, like in a recent blog post of the Chicago Times Union, frames the issue from a concerned parent’s point of view. This isn’t an isolated case, either. Soccer/hockey moms/dads are becoming increasingly vocal about concussion risks in youth sports, and plenty of times there’s an accompanying dismay at the apparent cluelessness of the coaches regarding the risks of unsafe return to play.
Here’s the thing, from where I’m sitting — as a multiple concussion survivor and a former student athlete myself: If we funnel all our energy into fear and avoidance and attempted prevention of injuries like concussions, aren’t we possibly missing a big lesson that sports can teach us, in the first place — namely, that it’s part of human experience to get hurt… and it’s vital that we learn to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and head back into the fray, facing our fears and dealing with what is.
Getting bent out of shape over concussions is understandable, but does it need to derail the very important process of learning from screwing up that often comes from childhood and youth? Since when did we start believing that all the lessons we can learn should be framed in positive terms, with no harm or danger involved? I would argue that by avoiding and trying to prevent risks, we are depriving the next generation of really critical lessons they need to learn, in order to deal effectively in the world.
If they don’t learn how to handle injury and adversity now, when they are relatively safe within the fold of their parents’ house, how will they handle it when the shit really hits the fan?
It inevitably does, you know. No parent can prevent that, hard as they may try.
Now, I’m sure that there are plenty of parents who will take issue with this attitude. And coming from a multiple mild traumatic brain injury survivor, I realize that credibility is an issue. How can someone who’s gotten clunked on the head as often as I have be a trusted source for judgment about how to deal with sports concussions? I’ve talked about my judgment around risk being a bit impaired in the past, so why listen to me now?
Here’s the thing — it’s not that I’m advocating that we put our kids in harm’s way and not give a damn about their safety. Far from it. But at some point, the helicoptering starts to genuinely prevent the most valuable part about childhood and youth — the learning gained from trying and failing and trying again. That includes the learning gained from falling down, getting hurt, getting up and assessing the severity of your injury, letting yourself heal, and then getting back into the game when it is genuinely safe to do so.
Granted, with concussion, the threshold of safe return to play is often elusive and unpredictable. But the opportunity — indeed, the teachable moments — that healing from an injury provides, can be invaluable in later life.
Concussions happen. They happen a lot. And I suspect they’ve been happening since the beginning of time — we just haven’t always had emergency departments at the ready to accept the steady stream of kids whose parents have good enough insurance and the level of understanding and concern to get them there. I’m not sure there are more concussions happening today than before — we’re just more keenly aware of them. And this increased awareness means we’ve got a shining opportunity to learn all about the injury — as well as how to heal.
And learn we must. It’s not enough to wring our hands over all those mild traumatic brain injuries. It’s not enough to rush the kids to the ER and lecture the coach about their insensitivity and putting our kids in danger. It’s not enough to turn our heads away from danger and injury and/or do everything in our power to prevent it. We must learn to deal directly with this in a way that actually works, so that it doesn’t get the best of us. We need to learn to face up to the danger, the risk, the harm, the inevitable hurt, and master our skills in overcoming it.
After all, if concussions are endemic to the human experience and people have been experiencing them since the beginning of time (which I believe is accurate), and we’re all still here (more or less) and we haven’t all died off due to chronic traumatic encephalopathy and our societies haven’t completely disintegrated into a dust cloud of demented violence (or maybe we have?), isn’t that at least some evidence that concussions can and do heal — and that we can probably find a better, more effective way to heal than we’ve seen in the past 50 years or so?
Rest alone won’t always do it. Concussion and TBI experts tend to agree that resting (and doing nothing else) doesn’t always fix the problems that come from post-concussive syndrome. Exercise, on the other hand, has been shown to clear issues with people with remarkable success — as SUNY’s University at Buffalo Concussion Clinic has found. Even professional ice hockey players are turning to them for help, and it appears to be helping. After decades of partial solutions, we’re getting to a point where we’re learning new ways of dealing with the somewhat staggering numbers of head injuries, and we should use them.
Let’s use them. Let’s deal with the issues around concussion — both the prevention of needless injury, and the healing from the hurt. Short-term recovery should be actively evolved and pursued and talked about in every public forum, from youth/amateur sports to professional circles. And long-term recovery should be addressed as well. Nobody who’s sustained a concussion (or more) should have to live under the dark cloud of the depression, the mood disorders, the behavioral issues, and the cognitive problems… not to mention the public stigma that comes from being considered “brain damaged”.
Concussions happen. But they shouldn’t have the last word.
At least, that’s what I think.