Girls Soccer: Sport plagued by concussions

Story Image Loyola's Margaret Walker heads the ball past Maine West's Kelly Cerri during their IHSA regional final at Loyola Friday. | Curtis Lehmkuhl~Sun-Times Media

Updated: June 4, 2012 8:45PM

All Margaret Walker knew for sure was that she collided with another player.

Playing against rival New Trier in the quarterfinals of the Pepsi Showdown in April, the Loyola sophomore forward looked more like a boxer.

“I had a black eye and everything,” she said. “When I hit my head, I was also sick at the time, so it was confusing.”

It was later determined Walker suffered a mild concussion. She missed four games and joins senior Meeghan Smith and junior Madaline Hartmann as Ramblers who have suffered from concussion-related injuries.

It is virtually impossible to find a team, especially the elite programs, that have not had players dealing with such injuries.

The data is more than just anecdotal. The results of an 11-year study by the American Public Health Association determined that girls soccer trailed only football as the sport with the highest rate of concussion incidence (0.35 per 1,000 athletic exposures).

The same study showed that girls, when playing the same sport as boys, have twice the concussion rate.

“Soccer has always had a very high rate of concussions,” Naperville Central athletic trainer Bill Hughes said. “I’ve had two goalies concussed by hitting their heads on the goalposts. More and more of the girls game is played in the air, and the most common occurrence are two girls going for the ball and hitting their heads,” he said.

With more and more teams playing on synthetic turf, the game has gotten faster.

The players, many of whom now receive year-round training and specialized instruction, have gotten bigger and faster. The collisions have become more common and more violent.

“Because girls have more room for growth, and we’re training people to be faster and stronger, there’s no way to make the head stronger,” Loyola coach Craig Snower said.“The force of impact between two players is greater than it’s ever been,”

“Girls are a lot more reckless than boys are,” Barrington coach Ryan Stengren said. “Whether it’s going for a ball in the air or on the ground, it would appear men are a little bit more in control. Girls just throw themselves around without worrying about the consequences. The girls don’t ever put on the brakes.”

Schools, coaches and parents have become more sensitive to the issue and have responded accordingly. New technology and medicine have also played a vital role. A decade ago, Lockport became the first Illinois school to implement the computerized cognitive testing program ImPACT (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing), developed by the medical staff of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Measuring cognitive functions such as short-term memory, the test helps determine whether students are fully recovered and capable of returning to play.

“It’s not a panacea, but it’s great to have something like this to rely on,” Hughes said. “It’s a great tool to have rather than have kids lie to you about their symptoms just to get back on the field because they think they‘re indestructible.”

More players are wearing protective headgear, but there is no hard evidence that this dramatically lessens the number of concussions, Hughes said.

“We’ve gotten better educated and know more than we used to and coaches are much more aggressive now in taking kids out of the game,” Stengren said.

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