Heads Up: The Importance of Headgear and Concussion Awareness in Sport

Duncan Geddes

by Duncan Geddes

Passion for sports. Protection for athletes. Policy changes for authorities. We discuss concussion awareness in our three exclusive interviews.

While the impact of head injuries in sport has been a topic that has come and gone alongside major incidents over the years – most recently EURO 2020 – there has been a much more concerted effort to affect change in the past 18 months.

Rugby World Cup winner Steve Thompson is among a number of ex-pros who are in the process of taking the game’s authorities to court for negligence – saying that concussion protocols were not sufficient and that repeated blows to the head have left many with early signs of dementia.

Many other sports are now reassessing if their measures to minimise the risks of head injury are sufficient. In February 2021, the Premier League introduced a ‘concussion substitute’ allowing teams to make up to two additional changes for players with head injuries. Tech innovations are also being tested, with eye-tracking, mouth guards and saliva tests being trialled to quickly identify a concussion – but what can be done to minimise impacts and protect players during the game?

Protective headgear has long been used, but what types are effective and what more can be done to provide increased protection for athletes without limiting their movement or ability to perform?

In a three-part series for the Future of Foam podcast, Duncan Geddes has talked to experts and professional sports players to find out more. Listen to all three episodes below:

Episode 1 – Iwan Roberts, commentator and former professional footballer

“The sad thing is, it’s probably taken for us to lose some proper legends of the game. Over the last two years or so we’ve seen three or four from the England ’66 team sadly pass away with this horrible illness for it to come to the forefront. It’s one of those things that people don’t like discussing.”

Welsh striker Iwan Roberts is best known for his time at Norwich City, where he scored 96 goals and helped the side earn promotion in the 2003-2004 season. Iwan also played more than 100 times for both Huddersfield and Leicester respectively, and represented Wales on 15 occasions.

Topics discussed in this episode:

  • How football’s approach to head injuries and concussion has changed in recent years
  • Professionals accepting the risks of injury
  • Whether football’s governing bodies should be doing more
  • If children should wear protective headgear

“I think the FA and the PFA don’t do anywhere near enough to help people who are trying to get answers, who are trying to help people who are suffering from dementia …” – Iwan Roberts

Listen here:

Episode 2 – Dr Michael Grey, Rehabilitation Neuroscientist

“I’ll go one step further than that, and say that [sports headgear] can actually cause damage.”

Dr Michael Grey is a neuroscientist specialising in neurorehabilitation at the University of East Anglia. Dr Grey runs the SCORES Project, an independent research study designed to better understand the cognitive health of athletes as they age.

Topics discussed in this episode:

  • The type of headgear that could help to prevent concussion
  • How cheap headgear for children could do more harm than good
  • Resistance from people who don’t want changes to sports.
  • The SCORES Project and how it is helping to assess the decline of the brain in athletes
  • The science behind concussion
  • How women are more prone to severe concussion

“I’m calling for cultural change, I’m calling for more of it. To be fair, we have changed quite a bit in the last few years. Just the fact that we’re having this discussion I think is really important.” – Dr Michael J. Grey

Listen here: 

Episode 3 – Will Hooley, professional rugby player

“I personally disagree with people saying people shouldn’t do contact until they’re 16. Because ultimately, if you’re only doing contact training at 16, you’ve missed a whole however many years of training and understanding the technical aspects.”

Saracens and the United States fly-half Will Hooley talks about his experiences of concussion and head injury as an active professional rugby player. Will joined Saracens in 2020 and represented the USA Eagles at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. He also hosts The Next Game: A Story Of Transition – a podcast about rugby players transitioning out of the sport.

Topics discussed in this episode:

  • Why Will chooses to wear headgear
  • The impact of concussion on mental health
  • The quality of medical care for head injuries in the professional game
  • Why contact is vital for children’s development
  • Awareness around concussion

Listen here:

If you spoke to my partner, I’m sure she’ll tell you it [concussion] impacted my mental health in general, you know. One of the concussion symptoms is kind of depression, and feeling a bit sort of dark and upset about yourself.” – Will Hooley

What is concussion? 

A concussion is a type of brain injury caused by a blow to the head that causes the brain to move rapidly, causing damage. While they are rarely life-threatening, they can result in long-term issues, including memory loss or dementia.

Do helmets protect against concussions?

While they can protect the skull, most current helmets cannot prevent concussion because of the way the brain moves after impact. However, if future helmet designs can decrease rotational forces, they could contribute to decreasing the risk of suffering a concussion.

“We have to think about the mechanism of injury in concussions… The brain sits within the cranium or the skull. The brain, you can think of it like a gelatin tissue. It’s really wobbly. So if you were to make a bowl of gelatin, and let it sit and put it on the table, and then you hit the side of the bowl, you’ll see that gelatin wobbling, that’s what’s going on in your brain… and it’s those rotational forces in the brain that are creating the injuries.” – Dr Michael J. Grey

Learn more about concussion and research into head injuries in sport:

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