Concussions Take Student-Athletes Away from More than Their Sports

May 26, 2023


Football players and cheerleaders, specifically the youth, are at extreme risk of suffering academically, mentally, and physically from concussions. Due to concussions in which these student athletes endure, a lot of them end up struggling with important factors of their lives.

Concussions are very common within physical contact sports like football and cheerleading. These physical contact sports are more dangerous and difficult than they appear to be and not only that but they’re more detrimental and harmful than most may assume. Not only are the youths currently developing brains being damaged, but the symptoms ranging on a scale from moderate to severe, impact their daily lives, whether that be short term or long term.

According to the Brain Injury Research Institute, “An estimated 1.6-3.8 million sports and recreation-related concussions occur in the United States each year.”

And according to Doctor Dustin Ballard, an ER doctor at Kaiser Permanente in Marin County, who also happened to write an article on concussions, says concussions are very common within young athletes. They can have long lasting impacts on the cellular function in the brain especially on the energy producing mitochondria and chronic symptoms/dysfunctions, if concussions are severe and or repeated.  

Some possible symptoms and signs of concussions include fatigue, dizziness, anxiety, depressions, insomnia, labile mood, light sensitivity, nausea, headaches, blurred vision, concentration problems, loss of memory and balance/coordination issues. 

When it comes to the world of cheerleading in the last few years, it has only become more complex and advanced, skill wise. Year to year, there are new skills no one has seen before. The sport of cheerleading is continuously growing more and more every year. The things some of these high school level teams are doing can truly be shocking and eye opening.

However, with more difficulty comes more risk of injury, especially concussions. Because of this, head injury awareness has really increased in the last few years and more extensive screening processes have been put into place to help keep athletes safe and diagnose concussions early on. 

Cheerleading consists of stunting which is building performances that display a team’s skill and dexterity. Tumbling is an individual effort to perform skills using one’s body, for example; a backflip/tuck. This also includes the actual cheer which consists of chanting and motions. Lastly, there is a dancing aspect of this sport.

San Rafael High School Senior Caleigh Urban was working on an advanced skill, when her top girl (the “flyer”) landed on her face, forcing her neck back and giving her extreme whiplash and a second concussion. Because this concussion was only three months after her first, side effects and symptoms were a lot more severe this time around. 

Caleigh expresses how this really changed her life, “I fell behind in school and never really caught up, along with messing up my academic success, it completely destroyed my mental health.” This made her depression worse, she goes on to say. “I felt lost and broken because it wasn’t easy to watch my grades slip since I was always obsessed with maintaining good grades.”

Caleigh also shares how her recovery experience was overwhelming because she felt alone through the whole process and despite having people who were trying to help, nobody really knew what was going on, and on top of that not many people believed her when she said that she didn’t feel like herself. This made her paranoid about getting hurt again. 

Within both of these sports there are actions and protocols being acted on. These protocols reduce the likelihood of impact to the head and help increase the safety of the players when executed correctly.  

When it comes to cheerleading at San Rafael High School athletes must work through progressions in order to move on. This means that cheerleaders must have the basics down before wanting to progress onto more difficult skills, to prevent injury. There’s spotting, which consists of supporting and helping all sides and corners of a stunt to insure its stability, in case the stunt fails spotters are available to help catch and break down the fall. 

There are typically four people involved within a stunt group, and these stunts require nearly perfect technique and execution all at the exact same time during the stunt sequence, in order for it to be executed successfully without mistakes. 

And when it comes to cheerleading in general, it takes one person to make a negative impact on the whole team. Alumni and assistant coach Maggie Pullinger, says during her time on the San Rafael High School cheer team because of her concussion she had to sit out for two weeks at practice. This resulted in her whole stunt group having to sit out as well, because without a top girl there is no stunt. This led on to affect the whole team because they were missing an entire stunt group. When it comes to skills like pyramids in which stunt groups are connected every stunt group is essential. 

Unlike stunting, concussions frequently happen when tumbling. Assistant coach Pullinger expresses that she developed a mental block because of her concussion while tumbling. “It took me years to overcome this setback,” says assistant coach Pullinger. 

“Even the tiniest adjustment from a basic finger,or a minute shift in the bodyline of the top girl can cause the stunt to fail unexpectedly, resulting in a fall,” Head cheerleading coach Shawna Hoch explains. “In most cases stunt fails and falls do not lead to injury as our athletes are trained to prevent them but falls happen quickly, which then leads to injuries and concussions.”

Within the sport of cheerleading concussions are sustained while stunting and tumbling. The nature of this sport and human error makes it nearly impossible for every stunt to be executed perfectly every time. Injuries are bound to happen when mistakes are frequently being made, however mistakes are essential in order to learn. According to coach Hoch, “There are fairly strict protocols when learning stunts and no stunt is executed without intensive spotting until the skill has been mastered.”

Iza Grijalva, a senior and cheerleader at San Rafael High School, says she missed about two months of school work because of two back to back concussions. She goes on to say, ”Mentally I felt drained, I had anxiety daily, and on top of that I felt like a failure because it felt like I wasn’t able to pick myself up and overall I didn’t know how to overcome this.” 

Due to the fact that her concussions were back to back, the second concussion affected her worse than the first. During her two months of recovery she didn’t know how she was going to feel one day compared to the next. She would miss some classes some days and go to the classes she missed but not the ones she didn’t miss, the following day. 

FUEL Education is a program which helps students gain back course credit needed in order to complete the High School Graduation requirements. This program is paced to one’s schedule, so if a student wished to dedicate plenty of time to this, they could get it done fairly fast. It also works in favor for those students who have a lot going on, and they can take their time with this program but eventually get it done.

Iza had to repeat two classes (AP U.S History and Algebra 2) with FUEL because there wasn’t another option to gaining back the credits she had lost, which she needed in order to graduate. 

“It was a long and stressful cycle of trying to keep up, yet still falling behind,” says Iza. Not only was the academic part affecting her, but the social aspect of her missing out on cheerleading and seeing others do what she wished she was doing,” It broke my heart,” Iza says. 

All of this took a toll on her mental health and she started to feel she wasn’t herself anymore. 

Cheerleading is a sport that involves your whole body, therefore Iza wasn’t able to participate in a single cheer activity throughout her recovery.

“It made me extremely sad, but it also made me eager to come back harder,” says Iza. This process of recovery wasn’t easy for her but she made it clear she knew she always had her family and friends as a support system. She adds on that the only school related support she received was from Mr.Baker, who was her math teacher the prior school year.

Similar to cheerleading, and according to Casey Sully, the current San Rafael High School head football coach, within the sport of football at the high school level the vast majority of these concussions come from full contact competitions with other teams. Though the number of concussions fluctuate year-to-year, there are usually a handful sustained over the course of the season. With the use of the schools concussion protocol, if players experience multiple concussions within the same year the coaches and medical staff are increasingly conservative when allowing a player to return to play. 

Football is a game that consists of two teams on a field, in which players try to maneuver a ball into other teams endzone while running, tackling and throwing.

Within football, concussions can happen when there’s a forcible contact with the head either from another player or when contacting the ground. Often athletes are most likely to experience concussions when they aren’t prepared for the collision and don’t see the incoming impact. 

John Maldonado, current senior and football player at San Rafael High School, says, “Concussions are just a part of the game and there’s nothing you can do about them because majority of the time they are unavoidable.”

When it comes to football there are also multiple tactics to help protect student athletes from concussions. For example, even in the summer when they’re not required to wear pads. They are always required to wear some sort of head protection, like soft-shell helmets and guardians caps (soft lining on the outside of the helmet that reduces force to the head) protects against any incidental contact to the head. Not only this but their techniques include the same mechanics as tackling in rugby (a sport very similar to football but less gear and protection). For example removing the head from a tackle. This teaches players to put their helmet on the back hip of the player they are tackling. These things reduce the likelihood of impact to the head and help increase the safety of the players when executed correctly.  

On top of these tactics all coaches apart from the football staff are required to have concussion training, to help recognize the symptoms of concussions to protect their athletes. And “anything that helps keep our players safe, we will do,” says Coach Sully, “as an entire football staff, we all feel it is better to be conservative and keep players safe, if there’s any suspicion that they may be experiencing a concussion.”

The athletic department shares that they receive information about any and all students that sustain a concussion during sports at San Rafael High School. And in terms of athletic directors dealing with it, it mainly consists of just sharing information to the respective parties. Then it is in the hands of the athletic trainer, Ysa Druck to begin the return to play protocol. 

Not only do concussions affect every person differently, but every person who is aware of someone with a concussion also handles it differently. 

“I always encourage students to share as much as they want about what happened to their teachers to ensure that they feel comfortable,” says San Rafael High School counselor Daniel Nemiroff. “I’m always thinking about the students’ privacy and ensuring that they’re okay with the information I provide to others, like their teachers.”

Avi Fernandez, San Rafael High School counselor, explains that as soon as she receives a doctor note from a student with a concussion she takes it seriously. “We try our best to give out the communication to teachers in a timely manner and as quickly as possible,” says Ms. Fernandez. 

Some of the students interviewed found it to be more helpful for them academically, when they decided to communicate with their teachers consistently about what had happened and what they were going through. This also gives them the ability to be in control of how much information they decide to disclose to others. 

Concussions are a big concern for both players and parents when considering playing physical contact sports. Not to mention injury risk is something everyone has to weigh when deciding to play a physical contact sport. It’s a personal choice whether one believes that these tactics are enough to protect a student athlete and wash away their worries about concussions. In certain situations the worst case scenario may be that student athletes have to stop playing because of concussions or they may choose to stop playing because they worry about getting concussions. On top of that, someone may not be able to recover their pre-injury abilities, such as no longer being able to do very difficult and high level school work like math. 

Similarly to Iza’s experience, Alex Fernandez, a current senior and football player at San Rafael High School, also was affected because of two concussions that occurred while playing football. 

He indicates that the only way to avoid concussions is to simply not play football or any physical contact sports, but if you do make sure that all your equipment is safe. 

Alex remembers having tons of mood swings and being out in a deep hole of school work. He goes on to say, he felt defeated and very emotional. “Academically, I feel that teachers are not very sympathetic because they don’t take into account the many effects that concussions may have on you.’’

As for accelerated courses and advanced placement classes like HP Pre-Calc, Alex fell very behind and the feeling of trying to mentally recover while you have a pile of work stacking up, did not help his case.

On top of that, mentally the thought of not being able to do anything was driving Alex crazy and some points during recovery were worse than others, when it came down to how badly he was struggling. 

Overall it was a very frustrating experience for Alex because physically he was fine, but mentally his brian needed time to recover and rest. 

Nico Woody, a junior, also a football player at San Rafael High School, experienced three diagnosed concussions. Unfortunately all three were unavoidable but unlike Alex his teachers were lenient and understanding about the whole situation. However, Nico did not use any other support system to help him get through this obstacle. 

As you can see in all of these student cases, all teachers handle situations and circumstances like these differently. 

“It was hard seeing all of my peers excel in a sport I love and I missed out on playing most of the season without my boys,” Nico says this impacted him the most.

According to pediatrician Cindy Chung, who works at the Kaiser Permanente hospital in Marin County, “Concussions are like a bruise on your brain.” Because of this, the brain becomes inflamed and there is swelling that occurs inside a skull which is a fixed amount of space. Due to this increased pressure caused by the swelling all of the symptoms of concussions may appear. 

The protocols that must be taken seriously when a concussion is diagnosed are as follows; 1-3 days of nothing but rest are highly recommended, followed by a graduated return to activities such as reading, screen viewing, homework, and attending school. This can take at least four more days to return to full school attendance and homework, depending on the severity of one’s concussions. 

Liliana Diaz is a current sophomore and varsity cheerleader at San Rafael High School who had her first concussion this season as a flyer while stunting. “Throughout those two weeks of recovery I felt pretty left out, both my teammates and family would do really fun things but since I had to be really careful and cautious with every little thing I did so that I could recover quickly and jump right back into cheerleading, I couldn’t do anything but sit back and walk around,” Liliana says.

Bryan Mendez, a current sophomore and football player at San Rafael High School, shares that because of his concussion he missed the last three games. This included one of the most important school events that everyone looks forward to because of the endless memories. His excitement and eagerness to play was crushed. “I felt like I couldn’t celebrate the win with my team that I was a part of because I didn’t play in the bell game,” says Bryan.

In order for there not be any lasting damage, anyone with a concussion diagnosis must   relax and rest their brain from both cognitive tests as well as physical tasks. 

Doctor Chung explains that the length of recovery can be influenced by many factors. She also goes on to say that previous history of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), depression, anxiety, or even previous concussions can make the recovery for concussions prolonged, and by four weeks after injury on average approximately 85-90% of patients with concussions have returned to pre injury activity level (both school and sport). In the remainder of concussions cases there can be a prolonged recovery lasting from months up to years. 

Typically the longer it takes for concussions symptoms to resolve, the higher the risk of struggling more severely, physically, academically and mentally. 

Once an athlete has returned to school full time, then a graduated return to their sport is allowed with caution and supervision granted by their athletic trainer or pediatrician. The minimum and shortest time frame to actually return to full sports activities is approximately eleven days from the head injury. It can most definitely be more if not mild but moderate or severe, especially if this isn’t your first concussion. Returning to play within eleven days can be extremely high risk for long term effects or a very prolonged recovery.  

There are very strict guidelines that are regulated by the state law for returning to school and returning to play for athletes that have concussions.These regulations require that one’s symptoms are reduced after a period of rest and then small amounts of brain activity allowed each day. Athletes must be seen by their pediatrician or an ER doctor to be diagnosed with concussions. A school athletic trainer can not make the diagnosis alone. 

Before COVID-19, mostly all school work was given on paper, but because of the pandemic we had to resort and adapt to using computer screens and digital copies of everything instead of having an actual physical copy of it on paper.

Not only that but, recovery and catching up with school work can take quite a bit of time and patience because most of our school work is given to us as students and done through a digital computer screen. This makes it very difficult for those with concussions because you’re supposed to avoid being on screens. 

However, there are some resources available at San Rafael High School if a student is dealing with personal difficulties, like a concussion. One of these resources consists of the Wellness Center, where students can seek counseling but also take a brain break. Another resource provided is the CCC (College and Career Center). The CCC has academic support in place in order to ensure that you are on the right path for your designated career path, whether that be going to college or obtaining a job right after high school. Lastly, there are also people like the school nurse or even your own assigned school counselors that are always there for a student when they need support and or help. 

With all that being said concussions are very common when it comes to physical contact sports like football and cheerleading. All parents and student athletes should be aware of the risks associated like long/short term effects that come with it, as it could affect them mentally, physically and academically.

Therefore, people should understand when it comes to such a damaging and injurious thing that could potentially cause them important things like their future athletic career, course credit, and or their own well being.

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