If you want to prevent youth ice hockey concussions, you need to actively create a culture where safety is prioritized - from buying high-quality sports equipment to forming a supportive culture towards taking time off for injuries within leagues.
14% of all ice-hockey related injuries are associated with concussions, according to a study by the Journal of Canadian Chiropractic Association. This fact is severely distressing to many parents, coaches, the CDC, and, most importantly, the youth who could be gravely affected by such injuries.
This article will explore a variety of ways to prevent concussions in youth hockey. Some tips are linked to the direct prevention of concussions, while others might not seem very helpful but are quite necessary. Keep reading for the top tips on preventing concussions.
There is a culture of playing through sports injuries for athletes. This is seen in professional and amateur games in all fields - be it ice hockey, soccer, or volleyball. But what prevents players from speaking out?
Here are a few factors that might hinder a player from seeking help, immediate or not, for a sports injury:
- Shame. Many athletes are afraid of seeming weak, especially male athletes. Society has propagated the notion that men need to ‘suck it up’ and not show any signs of weakness or risk betraying their masculinity.
- Fear. Athletes might feel afraid and ashamed by not playing and letting down their teammates, coaches, and parents who have come to view their game. They could fear costing their supporters a waste of their time, or potentially being the reason their team lost.
- Peer pressure. Teammates might pressurize each other into playing despite a player dealing with an injury. This could be malicious, with teammates implying that a player sitting out could cost their team the game or non-malicious by expressing disappointment in them.
- Warrior mentality. Players might mistakenly believe that playing through injuries increases resilience and builds character. With many professional athletes reportedly taking painkillers and continuing to play with torn hamstrings and broken ACL’s, younger players who look up to their role models might want to follow in their footsteps and engage in the same unhealthy behaviours.
A culture of prioritizing self-health needs to be created in sports, where it is ironically lacking the most. This is despite it being the field that sustains the most significant amount of physical injuries. Even if it seems like a seemingly harmless bump to the head, when a player gets injured, they need to make it a priority to ensure that a minor injury is not a symptom of a more serious issue.
A simple headache could be the sign of a concussion. When untreated, concussions can be fatal.
If you want to prevent a concussion from developing into a full-blown problem, it is imperative to educate other players on the team on how to detect the symptoms of a concussion.
A concussion is when a sudden strong force causes your brain to shift inside your skull, resulting in stretching, tearing, and damaging your brain cells. This can be due to a direct impact to the head, for example, with an ice hockey stick, or by violent shaking of your head or upper torso.
Here are some signs:
- Slurred speech
- Blurred vision
- Difficulty thinking
- Increase in pupil size
- Lack of motor skills
With ice hockey being classified as a collision sport, it is vital to have high-quality equipment to protect your head and neck from injury. This means having a good helmet. The helmet is the most critical piece of equipment that helps prevents a concussion.
A good helmet should have undergone extensive testing to ensure that it can withstand a variety of trauma. Laboratories like the Neurotrauma Impact Science Laboratory are specially designed to test the quality of products like ice hockey helmets.
Such labs have various devices that are specially designed to ram helmet prototype wearing dummies from all directions on several surfaces. These surfaces can range from the ice on an ice hockey rink to the more rigid concrete boundaries.
By using accelerometers inside the head forms, companies can accurately realize how force is distributed between the head, face, and neck, thus predicting possible injuries like concussions and improving their helmet models to reduce the risk of these injuries.
While many companies might make all sorts of claims regarding the viability of their product, and the proportion of injury that will be sustained, you should only buy helmets that are Hockey Equipment Certification Council (HECC) certified. This is an independent council that looks for the helmets that can sustain trauma the best and verify companies’ claims.
The name of the council might vary depending on the location where you live. Still, most countries have a third party institute that verifies the quality of certain sport-related products.
In the case of the USA HECC certification, it lasts for six and a half years. An expiration date on these products exists because, over the years, through repeated use and impacts, a helmet will lose its protective qualities. Don’t sacrifice your life by skimping out on the budget and not getting a HECC certified helmet every 6.5 years.
Also, whenever your helmet or face gear shows any signs of cracks, rips, and tears, it is imperative to replace the helmet and buy a new one immediately. Damages to the safety equipment will only affect your safety.
When buying a new helmet, the helmet, eye, and face straps need to fit correctly. Otherwise, it will not be able to perform its job of protecting your head from trauma.
When you fasten your chin strap, the helmet should not be loose, sway from side-to-side, or move around on your head. Instead, it should be snug at your temples, brow, and the crown of your head. However, snug does not mean tight-fitting or pinching - adjust the straps accordingly. If no amount of adjustment gets rid of the discomfort, buy a new helmet entirely.
You might be tempted to buy a used helmet that fits well, and that has not passed its HECC expiration date. That can be a bad idea because you do not know how many or how severe the impacts sustained on the helmet were. You should also remember that certifications are void on any resale.
A standard hockey helmet is made out of a substance called vinyl nitrate, which disperses force from the point of impact so that you sustain fewer injuries. Along with buying helmets made only of this material, your helmet’s interior should also be padded with a liner of soft foam or gel pads.
A good quality helmet is essential because, in a hockey game, you often have pucks and sticks flying about everywhere that could come into contact with your helmet. Before introducing helmets and full-face gear, head injuries accounted for 50% of all ice hockey-related injuries.
According to the British Journal of Sports Medicine, a correlation was found between the use of mouth guards and a lower number of the youth getting concussions. Using an off the shelf mouthguard was associated with a 69% lower probability of getting a concussion. It will also protect you from dental injuries when a fast-moving hockey stick hits your teeth.
The reason that a mouthguard can protect you from a concussion is that it will absorb shock, keep the mouth and head stable, and reduce movement to a direct hit of the jaw. The thicker the mouthguard, the greater the level of protection against a concussion.
A properly fitted mouthguard slips securely in place with no clenching required to hold it in position. It does not impair you from breathing correctly and will not make you gag. However, before you buy one, make sure it has been impact tested by a third party, just like in the case of the helmet.
If possible, it is also advised to get a custom-made mouthguard because recent evidence has found that custom-made mouthguards might be better at preventing concussions than generic ones. These mouthguards will also last longer than store-bought models.
The link between a lack of concussions and wearing safety equipment might not seem instinctually intuitive, but think about it this way. Not wearing your ankle, shin, and knee pads might make you subconsciously decide to fall on your head instead of your legs to protect yourself from injury. The reasoning is that a helmet protects your head.
However, it is still possible to get a concussion despite wearing a helmet. Hence, by wearing safety equipment and ensuring that it is of good quality, you can save yourself from a potential concussion.
Here is a list of things that you need to have:
- Gloves. Gloves will keep you warm and prevent hypothermia, keeping you more focused and less likely to get hit in the head and get a concussion due to any careless mistakes.
- Neck protector. Also known as a neck guard, it prevents any injuries to the neck and nerves from the impact caused by pucks and sticks.
- Shoulder, elbow, knee, and shin pads. For the same reason explained above.
- Skates. Good quality ice skates specially catered to your foot’s size will prevent you from falling as often and thus reduce the probability of concussions.
Foul play can have worse consequences than just losing the game. If players don’t follow safety regulations that are set in place, they could end up causing permanent damage to other players in the form of injuries like concussions.
Here is a list of rules to always follow in hockey:
- Never hit another player on the head deliberately. Sometimes, the game gets away from you. You might find yourself accidentally whacking somebody on the head with a hockey stick. Still, you should never maliciously or deliberately do it to take an opponent out.
- Do not check from behind. Checking is a defensive technique used in ice hockey to disrupt the player with the puck and gain possession of it. It involves hitting your opponent with your full body or a part of your body but never the stick. This is because the ice hockey stick travelling at a fast speed can cause some severe damage to any body part, not necessarily the head.
There are a few specific postures that one can take when playing ice hockey to prevent a concussion. The first one is used for body checking, while the second one is a general way to avoid head injuries like concussions.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, when players used the ready position before body checking, they sustained fewer concussions. In this position, players had their knees and trunk flexed at shoulder-width apart and used their legs to drive their shoulders through the body check.
Hence, coaches should spend more time teaching their players to anticipate and deliver collisions with proper form during a body check. To ensure that their students deliver on the techniques taught, they need to make sure that players try these techniques in several game-related drills.
The next technique is known as the ‘Heads up, Don’t Duck’ method. The name might sound counterintuitive to helping you avoid getting that concussion, but in reality, it is an advantageous technique to prevent both head and spine injuries.
This method essentially tells you to avoid ducking your head when you know that an impact is coming. Instead, keep it raised high and let the other parts of your body, like your arms and legs, take the brunt of the impact. Ducking your head makes it more prone to severe injuries such as spinal breaks, head concussions, and even paralysis.
To learn more about this method, you can watch this informational video:
Proper stretching and warm-up are always necessary as preparation before any kind of game. This is no exception for ice hockey. A warm-up can range anywhere from five minutes to twenty minutes, depending on your fitness level and the type of warm-up you choose to do.
A warm-up does the following:
- Increase heart rate
- Increase muscle temperature
- Prepare the body for physical work
- Increases flexibility
- Range of motion in your muscles
The physical benefits go a long way to increase your mental acuity and make you mentally ready for the game. This means that you’re more aware of your surroundings and more likely to avoid any players looking to tackle you, or any flying hockey sticks.
Some examples of different warm-ups that you should be doing before your game for hockey would be:
- Dynamic Stretches. These are stretches that are performed while moving, such as leg swings and walking lunges.
- Static Stretches. These are stretches that can be performed without moving the body except for the portion that is being stretched. Some examples include a hand-to-knee bend and a cobra stretch.
- Cardio. Light forms of cardio to get your heart pumping, such as marching in place, box jumps, or a light jog right before the game, are ideal.
These steps will also make your body less stiff and prevent you from falling in an awkward position where you could potentially injure yourself.
If you don’t want to get concussed when you fall, you need to be falling correctly. Falling improperly equals potential injuries. It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner or a professional. Falling safely is one of the most essential skills to learn in hockey.
Here are some things that you can do to learn to fall safely:
- Don’t be afraid to fall. Falling as a beginner means that you pick up on essential skills that you need as an intermediate or advanced player. If you’re scared of falling, you will likely fall with the wrong technique and end up severely hurting yourself.
- Keep your knees bent. Your knees bent means that you have a lower center of gravity, which means that you will be much more balanced even when falling. If you don’t keep your knees bent, there’s a high probability of falling backward on your head and getting concussed.
- Fall forward. In hockey, as in any other sport, you should always practice fall forwards. Fall onto your body with your hands and legs supporting. Falling backward means bad posture, and you will potentially fall on your head. A helmet might prevent yourself from getting cracked, but it doesn’t fully protect for whiplash or concussions.
Physical strength means that you will be able to support your body in a multitude of awkward positions without giving way, falling, and hitting your head. Your coach should already have you on a dedicated physical health program if you train competitively. Otherwise, here are a few training methods that you could try:
- High-intensity interval training (HIIT). HIIT is a form of cardio workout where you push yourself to the maximum for a very short interval of time, take a rest break, and repeat. This increases VO2 capacity and is a great way to get your fitness level up after a short time. An example of HIIT would be a few cycles of 90s all-out sprints with a 45s break.
- Cardio. General cardio is a moderate exercise period that can be sustained for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours. It involves doing anything that gets the heart rate up, like box jumps or sprinting.
- Weight training. Depending on the age of the youth, they can start weight training. Training with weights is a crucial way to build muscle mass and reduce the percentage of fat in their body, which could make them more streamlined and make it easier to move across the ice. Some examples of weight training exercises would be lifting dumbbells or barbells.
Both the coaches and the parents of youth hockey players should always teach the youth to maintain good sportsmanship and be less aggressive. Aggressive games have a way of spiralling downhill. Children sometimes won’t hesitate to whack at their opponents using their hockey sticks and to play roughly to get a chance to win.
A competitive environment also means an environment where a child is more likely to sustain a severe injury like a concussion. Here are some tips that parents and coaches should be teaching their children to instill the trait of good sportsmanship in them.
When your child wins, they should be proud of their achievement, but actively bragging and rubbing it in the other team’s face is a step too far. That creates an environment of resentment and hatred. Each team will try to assert each other in every way that they know how to, turning the game violent and nasty.
It is important to accept your loss gracefully and not make any excuses for it. If your child or anybody else on the team has made a mistake, it is vital to acknowledge it, learn from it, and move on. Otherwise, it can turn into a blame game. The youths will try to irrationally pin the blame upon the other team or other factors to avoid taking responsibility for their actions.
When you don’t follow instructions and charge off to try and do your own thing, it can end up going south, causing either your team to lose the game or somebody getting seriously injured. Follow the directions that your coach has given you and stick to the plan.
Do not become immediately angry when somebody fails to do something. Instead, encourage them so that you would all be able to succeed.
If you’re playing outside, check with the local authorities if the ice is safe to play on. In spring, seemingly thick ice can be deceiving and crack. When not sure about the safety of the ice you want to play on, don’t approach it or play on it.
Here are some things that you should not be doing:
- Play on the ice near running water
- Skate on community wet pools
Try to use indoor ice hockey skating rinks as often as possible because skating on ice outside can have disastrous consequences resulting in injuries.
Sometimes, plays containing body checks that could potentially cause concussions are not flagged. When referees and coaches enforce the rules and give penalties to such plays, it sends out a clear signal that improper behaviour is not tolerated and will discourage players from attempting such plays in the future.
Another way to prevent concussions is to limit the amount of body checking in junior leagues, such as the Bantam youth hockey games. While some leagues already have these measures in place, others don’t. As a result, national enforcement of specific rules and regulations designed to protect the youth from the dangers of ice hockey is an excellent way to prevent youth from getting hurt.
When enforcers go for the big hit, they don’t usually care about how it affects their fellow players. They want their opponent to go down so that they can score their big goals while simultaneously impressing fans with their hits.
All youths competing at any professional capacity, be it statewide, for their school, or national, should have a hitting coach. They will teach enforcers standardized and safe ways to hit the other player on sites that are not as prone to injury, such as the chest. This will result in fewer overall injuries and a cleaner game.
Baseline testing should be a given for every hockey player, junior league, or otherwise. Also known as a pre-injury test, baseline tests assess an athletes’ brain function and balance amongst other things. They are used when an athlete is suspected of having a concussion. Such tests need to be conducted annually or biannually to ensure that results are accurate.
If baseline testing is mandated for every hockey player, it is a quick and effective way to diagnose a concussion and prevent it from worsening due to neglect.
Youth ice hockey can seem like a very dangerous sport with no significant benefits. However, it has plenty of mental and physical benefits, not to mention that it is a source of passion for many youths. Despite this, it is essential to be cautious when playing the sport to ensure that players do not sustain serious injuries like concussions.
By following the tips in this article, you will be able to ensure that players will be able to play more safely with less risk of being negatively affected.
- Integrated Rehabilitation Services: Playing Through The Pain
- IOL: It’s not just a bump - Concussion could kill you
- UPMC: Ice Hockey Safety Tips
- The Globe and Mail: Science, safety and sales: The hockey helmet marketing problem
- Pure Hockey: Hockey Helmet Safety and Certification
- Makura: Why Mouthguards Matter in Ice Hockey
- ScienceDaily: Custom-made mouthguards reduce athletes’ risk of concussion, study shows
- Ice Hockey Wiki: Checking
- Moms Team: Anticipating Body-Checks May Reduce Youth Ice Hockey Concussion Risk: Study
- TeensHealth: Stretching
- YouTube: How To Properly Warm Up & Stretch For Hockey Players Pre-game
- Stanford Children’s Health: Teaching Children Good Sportsmanship
- The Hockey Equipment Certification Council Inc.: Home Page
- National Center for Biotechnology Information: Concussions in the NHL: A narrative review of the literature
- British Journal of Sports Medicine: Mouthguard use in youth ice hockey and the risk of concussion: nested case–control study of 315 cases