Head games: The truth about concussions

Alana Cervera, Online Managing Editor, Sports Columnist

As I hit the water, I immediately knew something was wrong. It was towards the end of my Tuesday practice and the week of the DuPage Valley Conference (DVC), my last diving meet of the season. I watched the playback on the TV screen next to the pool and didn’t think much about my head hurting. It was just one bad dive, right?

I was completely wrong. I went to other extracurricular activities, did my homework and even watched TV that night without feeling any symptoms of a potential injury. It wasn’t until the next afternoon that I realized something wasn’t right.

Later that afternoon, my head and body ached, and I could barely look at the Smart Board at the front of the classroom, much less listen to my teacher give directions to the class.

The athletic trainer diagnosed me with a concussion after school.

I wasn’t concerned about my health. I cared more about how I wasn’t able to compete in DVC later that week rather than the long lasting effects of a traumatic brain injury.

But that’s what we athletes do.

We care more about our sport than our bodies. It’s our teammates, coaches and sport that really matter. Not ourselves. The love for our sport can be toxic. It will hurt us, but we still keep crawling back. We’ll push through difficult injuries, dreaming about our future careers rather than wondering if we’ll be able to achieve them.

Concussions have been a national epidemic.

From Head Case, a family-owned medical company dedicated to helping “protect young athletes from the risks of undetected cumulative concussions,” there’s an estimated four to five million concussions that occur annually. Additionally, one in five high school athletes will sustain a concussion in their season. This number is boggling to me as someone who’s part of that statistic.

Many student-athletes put their sport above their academics. They believe they cannot go to college without their athletic scholarship. But what they don’t think about is the long-term impact of several traumatic brain injuries (TBI). This is because their college experience may not be the same afterward. After several TBIs, the brain isn’t able to function properly. A second blow to the head can result in post-concussion syndrome, which includes persistent dizziness, headaches, irritability and problems with memory and learning.

Headcase ranks the amount of sports concussions that take place per 100,000 athletes, with football coming in first with 64 -76.8 and boys’ ice hockey second with 54.

Concussions have been a long-standing issue in the sports world. I’m personally not sure how to fix it and neither do experts.

But I do know one thing.

Athletes need to communicate more with their injuries. Period. No matter if it’s a minor or major injury. The sport culture of “sucking it up and not looking weak” needs to go away. There should not be any shame surrounding injured athletes. Athletes’ bodies are more important than their sport. We cannot sacrifice our bodies in an effort to do what we love. It’s just not healthy.

Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson describes this difficulty.

“You are supposed to be tough,” he said. “You are supposed to play through pain. You are not supposed to cry. We are taught that early on in the game as kids. Tough sport. Brutal sport. It’s like the gladiator. People want to see the big hits. They wind up on Sports Center. And as a player, you don’t want to admit you are injured.”

Are we to blame the coaches? Or the athletes? Maybe both?

I don’t think there’s a completely right answer because the responsibility comes down to all of us. Coaches, athletes, athletic trainers, parents, siblings and even teammates. It applies to everyone connected to the sports world because nothing will change if our thinking doesn’t.

And with all this said, I’m not a perfect athlete in communicating with coaches, nor am I medically qualified to talk in any way. But I would like to say this to my fellow athletes:

Remember to not just think about now but what we want our quality of life to be in the next 50 years. To know that our sport doesn’t define us as a whole person and, most importantly, remember that our passion for sports shouldn’t replace the love for our own well being.