When Scott Dudek coaches his eighth-grade boys’ basketball players, he won’t just critique their shooting mechanics and defensive skills.
Starting next month, Dudek and other volunteer coaches statewide will be expected to start watching young athletes for signs of concussions.
A new law goes into effect April 26 requiring coaches and officials for all youth sports in Ohio to get free online training every three years about how to spot warning signs for concussions. Under the rules, players with possible head injuries must be removed from games or practices and not allowed to return without written permission from a doctor.
Teams also must distribute an information sheet about signs and symptoms of concussions to participants’ parents.
The provisions are designed to raise awareness about head injuries and protect young athletes from the potential dangers of undetected concussions, said Dr. Joseph Congeni, director of the Sports Medicine Center at Akron Children’s Hospital.
“When in doubt, sit them out,” Congeni said. “That’s the big mantra.”
Awareness about concussion prevention and proper treatment has increased at all levels of sports in recent years as more becomes known about risks and long-term effects. Even after headaches subside, silent symptoms can linger that put an athlete at risk for serious — even fatal — consequences from a second concussion.
Dudek, an engineer who volunteers to coach an Akron-area tournament basketball team, has already completed the required online concussion training. His own awareness about head injuries was heightened when one of his sons missed a week of school last year after suffering a concussion.
“Anything that can raise awareness is important and should be done,” he said.
But he still has questions about the new requirements and when athletes need to be pulled.
“Is it just enough to hit your head, or does it have to be something more than that?” he asked. “I think you have to exhibit some kind of symptoms. That’s my confusion, and I think other coaches are struggling with that as well.”
Coaches and officials aren’t expected to become medical experts, Congeni said. Instead, they should look for abnormal behavior in players who hit their heads.
“Diagnosing concussions is a very difficult thing for a doctor who has been on the sidelines for 25 years,” he said. “All we’re asking them is to be very vigilant and open to looking for unusual behaviors.”
State lawmakers are working to correct a bill-writing error that would allow criminal penalties for youth sports coaches and referees who don’t follow the concussion rules. Lawmakers in the Ohio House and Senate passed similar measures last week to remove the penalty provision.
“The issue is really education. We’re not about penalizing folks,” said Cameron McNamee, an injury prevention specialist with the Ohio Department of Health’s Violence and Injury Prevention Program. “But there is definitely a concern among youth sports organizations to gain compliance with the law for any kind of insurance requirements they have.”
The new law closely mirrors rules already enacted in 2010 by the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA). The existing rules don’t apply to youth sports and non-sanctioned activities, such as lacrosse.
Unlike existing rules, the new law bans athletes from returning the same day they’re removed with signs of a head injury, even with a doctor’s permission, OHSAA Associate Commissioner Deborah Moore said.
Last school year, 13 of 102 football players removed from a game for a potential concussion were allowed to return the same day with permission from a doctor or other medical expert, according to the OHSAA. In wrestling — the sport with the most removals — 7 of the 111 student athletes pulled from competition were allowed to return.
The Ohio Alliance of YMCAs initially raised concerns about the proposal but supported the youth concussion law after questions about liability and the cost and ease of training were addressed.
YMCAs rely heavily on volunteer coaches and referees to run everything from teeball programs to youth soccer leagues.
“We just wanted to make sure it wasn’t going to preclude us from doing the programs because coaches wouldn’t be able to qualify,” Akron Area YMCA President and Chief Executive Doug Kohl said. “Who can argue with trying to keep our kids safe? That’s a no-brainer.”
Cheryl Powell can be reached at 330-996-3902 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Powell on Twitter at twitter.com/abjcherylpowell.