Concussions are the norm — Girls soccer second only to football in high school sports concussions

Bainbridge High School forward Celia Story collides with an unidentified Central Kitsap High School player during the Saturday Oct. 1, 2011game between the two schools.  - Tom James/staff photo
Bainbridge High School forward Celia Story collides with an unidentified Central Kitsap High School player during the Saturday Oct. 1, 2011game between the two schools.
— image credit: Tom James/staff photo

At six and one, the Bremerton varsity girls soccer team is doing well this year, despite having had three players out already for concussions.

Officially six wins, one loss, and one tie, the season is off to a great start, said Bremerton High School coach Collette Lyons Monday.

Even Olympic high School, a school that usually gives the Bremerton varsity girls at best a tie or one-point win, this year gave up five points to Bremerton High School scorers, Lyons said.

Yet the season, now about five weeks old, has not been without its costs, Lyons said. So far the team has had three players out for concussions. Two of the three returned to play Tuesday, Oct. 4, for the first time since their injuries.

Kathryn Yanuszeski, an athletic trainer at Bremerton High School, said that three was not an abnormally high number of concussions, even for so early in the year.

In charge of supervising students who receive concussions during all sports, Yanuszeski normally sees 10 to 15 concussions each year on the football team.

Given that soccer and football teams are genrally the same size, Yanuszeski said, a rate of three to four concussions per season on the girls’ soccer team isn’t surprising.

Nationally, girls soccer ranks just below boys football in high school sports, according to a 2007 study of injuries in high school and college sports by researchers from Ohio State University and the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

The same study observed an even more pronounced difference between girls and boys basketball, with female athletes receiving almost three times as many concussions as their male counterparts.

Dr. Marla Kaufman, a doctor at the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital’s Sports Concussion Program said she definitely sees those figures reflected in her patients. Why the disparity exists, said Kaufman, is another question entirely.

“There’s a lot of theories about it,” said Kaufman, including that weaker core muscles might leave girls more susceptible than boys to hitting their heads. “But I don’t think we have an answer.”

What is known, Kaufman said, is that “girls play a little differently than boys play.” It’s also known that the injuries generally aren’t caused by “heading” the ball – when a player uses their head to bounce the falling or flying ball – but usually by hitting the ground or another player, she said.

Generally, Kaufman said, rates of accidents in athletics are measured per thousand athlete exposures. For concussions in boys soccer, that rate is 0.22. Girls soccer rates 0.36. Even though the numbers look small, Kaufman said, it amounts to a big difference – more than 60 percent more concussions for girls than boys of the same age, playing the same sport.

Mechanics aside the bigger picture is one of girls playing just as hard as boys, Kaufman said.

“What’s important to note is that concussions are not just football injuries. We have to keep in mind that girls play aggressive, too,” she addes.

Tuesday night, the Bremerton girls’ varsity team faced off against North Kitsap High School, and it was defender Leah Straub-Wheaton’s first time back in the game since she received a concussion in a game against Kingston High School a week before.

In that game, Straub-Wheaton said, she slide-tackled a Kingston offensive player who was driving the ball toward Bremerton’s goal. Straub-Wheaton knocked the ball away just as the Kingston player lined up to kick it. Instead of connecting with the ball, as both girls fell the kingston player’s strike connected with her head.

“I got the ball, she got my head,” Straub-Wheaton said with a laugh. “A fair trade, I think.”

Even though she wanted to get back into the game, Straub-Wheaton said she wasn’t tempted to lie about her symptoms because she knew waiting to heal was important for her health.

Despite her concussion, Straub-Wheaton said she planned to slide-tackle again.

“I slide-tackle a ton,” Straub-Wheaton said. “It’s very rare that you get hit the wrong way.”

Bremerton junior varsity coach Michelle White said she had seen two of the concussions happen. One, White said, was the result of a player falling and being kicked in the head, like Straub-Wheaton. The other was the result of two players jumping to “head” the same ball, missing, and striking their heads together.

Part of the difference in numbers between boys and girls, White said, could be due to reporting.

While the school had one reported concussion last year she said, and three so far this year, in 2008, the year before Washington concussion legislation was passed, White could remember none.

Enacted in 2009, the Zachary Lystedt Law requires coaches sit players out if they are even suspected of a concussion, and that players receive written authorization from a healthcare provider before returning to play.

“I think we pay closer attention now. Before it was, ‘oh, you fell down and bumped your head, get up, dust yourself off.’ Now they send us to classes,” White said, referring to classes the school’s coaches are required to attend on spotting concussions.

“[The corses] scare the crap out of us,” White said.

Yanuszeski also said she thought reporting might be part of the reason for the higher numbers in girls sports, including specifically Bremerton’s recent spate of concussions.

“Girls aren’t afraid to report it,” said Yanuszeski. “Boys coaches are harder on the boys. I think guys don’t report it as much because guys are supposed to have that tough attitude.”

Charlese Gaines, another Bremerton defender, was the last of Bremerton’s three players to be kept on the sidelines for her concussion symptoms. During Tuesday night’s game she sat on the bench with her teammates in the rain, and grabbed hot cocoa partway through.

The game before Straub-Wheaton was injured, Gaines also went in for a slide tackle, also as an opposing player drove the ball down the field, and ended up kicked in the head.

When it happened, Gaines said, “I just sat on the ground. I felt kind of dizzy, but I wasn’t sure. I felt the side of the bone by my eye, and I had a big old bruise and cleat marks.”

“It was scary because when I got kicked, my neck started hurting, and I was like, ‘oh my gosh, I hurt my neck.’ I wasn’t sure ‘til I got checked out [the next day].”

Gaines said she still gets headaches, so she’s still sitting out.

“It’s kind of hard because I want to get back out and play again,” Gaines said. “But it’s good for my health, so I can come back and do what I have to do on the field.”

Hopefully, Gaines said, she’ll be back in the game by Thursday.

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