Preventing Ivy League brain drain

In the middle of the men’s and women’s hockey seasons, the Ivy League university presidents will meet today to review and approve regulations that are designed to prevent concussions in Ancient Eight hockey. The new rules follow those that have been put in place for football, lacrosse and soccer since the Ivy League Concussion Committee first met in 2010.

The hockey recommendations are designed to reduce the number of concussions and to increase awareness of the injury’s symptoms and severity. According to an October draft of the Ivy League Review of Concussions in Men’s Hockey, the recommendations include increased neck strength training and support for the ECAC postgame video review and suspension policy.

“The rules are part of the Ivy League’s focus on leading the NCAA on concussions,” said Robin Harris, executive director of the Ivy League. “One part is the prevention — the other is education.”

The League’s Ad Hoc Committee on Concussions first convened in 2010 to review head trauma in football and to determine what measures could be taken to reduce risk in the sport. In July 2011, Ivy League presidents accepted the new football regulations that limit full-contact practices to twice a week and decrease the number of practices in full pads.

The committee then turned to reviewing data and research for lacrosse and soccer, and recommendations for both sports were approved in July 2012. Men’s lacrosse head coach Andy Shay said the regulations requiring 11 in-season days of no full-contact practice were easy to fit into the team’s schedule and did not have a significant impact on his team.

Head men’s and women’s soccer coaches Brian Tompkins and Rudy Meredith both explained that the regulations do increase awareness but do not change anything in their practices or in the game. Meredith sat on the league’s Multi-Sport Concussion Review Committee and helped to design the regulations that require three hours of preseason practice dedicated to proper heading technique.

“They’re common sense, based on what we already do,” Tompkins said of the regulations. Another measure implemented by the committee requires education on the pre-existing NCAA rule allowing substitution of potentially concussed players.

Bobby Thalman ’13 and Jenny Butwin ’13, the men’s and women’s soccer team captains, both said they had not heard of the specific recommendations that were approved for their sport in July 2012. However, Thalman and Butwin did emphasize that they have seen an increase in the amount of concussion prevention and education since their freshman year.

“In terms of a regulation to eliminate concussions, you’d have to take air balls out of the game — forbid players from using their head,” Butwin said. “You can’t do that.” Butwin added she was one of seven players on Yale’s 26-woman roster diagnosed with a concussion in 2012.

Even with the increase in available information that Thalman and Butwin have seen, administrators in the athletic department and medical staff at Yale remain concerned that athletes may not report their concussions. Because the symptoms differ between individuals and because the injury forces athletes to miss games, Yale Health physician Lindsay Huston, the university’s representative on the Committee on Concussions, said she knows that athletes are not always forthcoming about their concussion symptoms.

“I’m lucky at Yale because athletes value their brains and futures, but I still have athletes hide [their symptoms and head injuries],” Huston said. “There’s not a lot I can do when I think someone is lying. I have to believe them.”

An athlete reporting his or her symptoms is the most important factor in diagnosing a concussion, according to Huston. She said she works to remind potentially concussed individuals that their future is at stake, asking “Why are you at Yale?”

The Ivy League does not have immediate plans to review and issue recommendations for another sport, Executive Director Harris said, but the league does plan to continue leading the NCAA in concussion prevention and management. In June 2012, the league announced a co-sponsored research partnership with the Big Ten Conference to help provide answers about concussion prevention and treatment.

“As a sports society we’re trying to figure this whole thing out,” lacrosse coach Shay said. “We don’t know the answers, but we’re trying to take a step in the right direction.”

The NCAA’s Injury Surveillance Program revealed this year that the rate of concussions across all fall sports — football, soccer, field hockey and volleyball — has remained steady over an eight-year period.

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