Technology is Being used to Better Understand Football Concussion

I want to keep my readers on the leading information edge when it comes to Athlete Concussion and Sports Science in general. This article discuss’ how very special football helmets are being used to better understand the tremendous physical forces produced by head contacts in big time college football players.

Concussion Worries Renew Focus On Football Safety

by TOM GOLDMAN September 24, 2010

This is the screen on the sideline unit's laptop that researchers use to monitor head impacts on players.

EnlargeCourtesy of Dr. Gunnar Brolinson of Virginia TechThis is the screen on the sideline unit’s laptop that researchers use to monitor head impacts on players. For each player, there’s the depiction of a head — arrows superimposed on the head represent impact; the length of the arrow corresponds to the magnitude of the impact.  Researchers can look at the screen, the little red head, see the direction of the arrow and how long it is, and determine where the blow came from and how large it was.

Football concussions no longer are the elephant in the room.

Another season is in full swing, and talk about concussions is everywhere — from the National Football League to college to high school on down.

Congress is interested: A House Committee had a hearing Thursday to deal with how best to safeguard young athletes.

And then there’s this from researchers: A college player who recently committed suicide had a degenerative brain disease normally linked to much older players. It’s prompting a new round of questions about safety in the dangerous game that Americans love.

The Most Popular Player

Before the University of Pennsylvania’s opening game in Philadelphia on Sept. 18, the public address announcer at Franklin Field urged those gathered to remember one of their own.

“At this time, we ask that you join the Penn football players, coaches and staff as we honor Owen Thomas with a moment of silence,” he said.

Thomas, No. 40 for the University of Pennsylvania, was supposed to be on the field for the coin toss before the home opener that Saturday night. The all-Ivy League defensive lineman with the bright-red hair was a co-captain (the most popular kid on the team, the coach said). No. 40 was there at Franklin Field, but it was in the form of a decal on the Penn players’ helmets, and a 40-second-long silent tribute.

On April 26, 21-year-old Thomas killed himself — suddenly, impulsively, his family said. According to reports, Thomas didn’t leave a note. He was found with his cell phone still in his pocket. His parents agreed to let researchers at Boston University study Thomas’ brain.

“His brain showed what I would call early onset chronic traumatic encephalopathy,” Dr. Robert Cantu, one of the directors at the BU research center, said afterward.

Disease Of The Moment

CTE is the football concussion “disease of the moment.” In the past couple of years, Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy has revealed that many deceased NFL players had CTE. The symptoms include depression, erratic behavior and, ultimately, dementia. Some of the former players committed suicide or exhibited suicidal behavior. Researchers at BU say it’s impossible to definitively link Thomas’ suicide to CTE. But another aspect of his case was startling.

Courtesy of Dr. Gunnar Brolinson of Virginia Tech

The sideline unit in the HIT System receives data from sensors inside players’ helmets. The unit keeps track of the head impacts and the magnitude and location on the skull for each player using a helmet equipped with sensors. This way, researchers can get a “hit count” for individual players. The expensive system — $1,000 per helmet — is used in a handful of colleges and high schools across the country. Virginia Tech was the first university to use the system.

Many of the other CTE victims had a history of repeated, documented football-related concussions. Thomas, who started playing football as a 9-year-old, did not.

“Thousands of subconcussive blows can probably be just as deleterious as a blow at the concussion level,” Cantu said.

Translation: The mere act of playing football with its many, seemingly innocuous collisions, could be silently wreaking havoc on the brain.

The Hit Count

Because of the potential for harm from the many lesser impacts to the head, Cantu says it’s necessary to take a page from another game — baseball.

“We have pitch counts for pitchers from Little League to the majors, who want to limit the number of pitches they throw and protect their arms,” he said. “We’re probably going to have to go to hit counts to the head in our football players to protect the brain.”

Monitoring the number of blows to the head has been a full-time project for Dr. Gunnar Brolinson, the head doctor for the Virginia Tech football team, since 2003. The Hokies were the first college team to put in place hit-count technology.

Games and practices have doubled as a brain laboratory for Brolinson. The technology he uses consists of small sensors placed inside players’ helmets. A device on the sideline, the size of a small footlocker, receives data from the sensors and then displays information on a laptop computer screen.

Brolinson monitors the screen, which depicts a computer-generated head, and colored arrows on different parts of the head that show the location and magnitude of a head hit.


Courtesy of Dr. Gunnar Brolinson of Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech’s football helmets are outfitted with six sensors (the brown objects) that record data. There is also a small antenna that transmits information from the sensors to the sideline controller unit. The sensors are small accelerometers — similar to devices that trigger an automobile air bag.

“I’m looking at a head blow right now on one of our players,” he said, demonstrating the system. “And I can see that he’s had a blow that’s on the left, lateral side of the head. The length of the arrow [on the head] corresponds to a blow that is about a 58 G head acceleration.”

Fifty-eight Gs, he says, is a relatively typical football-related acceleration, or impact. To confirm that, Brolinson looks up from the computer screen and finds the player on the field.

“The player looks fine,” he says, adding, “he’s out there running around.”

Still Early Research

The HIT system, as it’s called, is expensive. Brolinson says the cost is about $60,000 for a college football team. An individual helmet is $1,000. The price is one of the reasons the system’s use is limited at this point to a handful of colleges, universities and high schools.

Creators of the HIT system say they are developing a version that will be more affordable and, they hope, more widely used.

Those who use it now have established average hit counts for different players. Linemen, like Thomas, collide on every play, so they have the highest hit counts. The statistics show they log anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 head hits per season. But Brolinson cautions against drawing conclusions from the numbers alone. The research, he says, still is very young.

“We have no idea if that thousand hits is a bad number,” he says. “That’s the importance of doing this research and carrying it forward.”

We have no idea if that thousand hits is a bad number. That’s the importance of doing this research and carrying it forward.

– Dr. Gunnar Brolinson

Brolinson says he hopes in three to five years, if his project continues, he will have a better idea of what numbers constitute a danger zone for football players.

He also says the Thomas story shouldn’t cause a knee-jerk reaction among those worried that CTE signals a widespread problem in football. CTE research is evolving as well, Brolinson says. Not every football player with a lot of head hits gets the disease. Brolinson and others think CTE may have a genetic component to it.

Change The Game?

Still, Thomas’ case has ratcheted up the discussion about how to reduce the number of football head impacts — big and small.

In Chapel Hill, N.C., longtime football concussion researcher Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz talks to his 10- and 14-year-old sons, who both play football.

“I ask them everyday over dinner what they went over today, what they learned today,” he says. “I force them to come up with one or two new things they learned, in terms of how to protect themselves.

“I would hope that other parents would be doing the same, and I hope the coaches would be responsible enough to provide an answer for those kids when parents ask what they learned.”

Most coaches teach tackling and blocking with the head up. “See what you hit” is the mantra. But the message doesn’t always get through.

I cannot watch a football game without seeing a guy lead with his head on almost every play. That can’t be allowed.

– Dave Halstead

Guskiewicz ran a six-year study that showed one in five college football head impacts happened at the top of the head. That’s alarming to Guskiewicz and to Dave Halstead, who is intimately involved in the industry dedicated to protecting football players.

“I cannot watch a football game,” he says, “without seeing a guy lead with his head on almost every play. That can’t be allowed.”

Halstead does laboratory testing on football helmets; he consults with the NFL and the NFL Players Union on helmet performance. Safer headgear isn’t the issue for him. The best defense against brain injury, he says, is teaching the game the right way. To make sure all coaches do that and take it seriously, Halstead suggests a rule against any intentional headfirst contact.

Then, of course, officials would have to call the penalties when they see them. Getting to that point will be a challenge “because every play, there’d be 27 flags,” Halstead says, only half-kidding. “They’re all 15-yard penalties. The field’s not big enough.”

Amid the outcry about the risk of brain trauma in football, it’s important to note that there was a time when players died from injuries that now result in concussions. Knowledge, equipment and rules all have changed to better protect the players. Now, there’s momentum for a next round of change.

For some, it can’t come soon enough.


What I think …

“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” ~Richard Steele, Tatler, 1710

I’m good about keeping clutter in my domicile, car and life to a minimum, yet when it comes to what I read – which is considerable – I’m a pack-rat. I love books and try to read a book a week which makes my need for bookshelves grow (and makes me happy). As great as books are, the fastest way to chug down information is by reading articles, research paper etc. which I do daily and then save the good ones in my computer. Here is an article I saved some time ago that is a MUST READ for all who have yet to embrace resistance training. Its entitled Top 10 Reasons Heavy Weights Don’t Bulk Up the Female Athlete, which holds true for all females even if they are simply looking to reduce body fat, loose inches or ‘tone up’ aka have a firmer, denser body and feel better. No other exercise modality is as powerful in developing a strong,healthy, sleek, athletically capable and esthetically pleasing body. Pass it on to those whom you care about and  much respect to the authors Tim Kontos, David Adamson, and Sarah Walls – well done.

Top 10 Reasons Heavy Weights Don’t Bulk Up the Female

David Adamson and I were driving to the IPA Nationals this past weekend talking training (yeah we’re pretty passionate about what we do) when the subject of training women with heavy weights came up. I’m in my ninth year at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) as the head strength and conditioning coach, and David has been in strength and conditioning for three years. This is a subject we deal with every year regardless of how much training information is available to the public.

The best way to get information is to go to the source. So we asked Sarah Walls, another strength and conditioning coach at VCU. Sarah is also a writer for Muscle and Fitness Hers, a former figure competitor, and a women’s tri-fitness competitor—not to mention a strong female athlete who isn’t bulked up. Therefore, she has a great perspective on the subject.

We, being a good team, put our heads together to find a way to combat this never-ending dilemma. Our way of doing that is through education. And, only one answer to a question is never enough. If you know your job well, then you know that there is more than one way to skin a cat. So we came up with the following list:

  1. Women do not have nearly as much testosterone as men. In fact, according to Bill Kreamer in Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, women have about 15 to 20 times less testosterone than men. Testosterone is the reason men are men and women are women. After men hit puberty, they grow facial hair, their voice deepens, and they develop muscle mass. Because men have more testosterone, they are much more equipped to gain muscle. Because women do not have very much testosterone in their bodies, they will never be able to get as big as men.
  2. The perception that women will bulk up when they begin a strength training program comes from the chemically altered women on the covers of bodybuilding magazines. These “grocery stand models” are most likely pumped full of some extra juice. This is why they look like men. If you take the missing link that separates men from women and add it back in, what do you have? A man!
  3. For women, toning is what happens when the muscle is developed through training. This is essentially bodybuilding without testosterone. Since the testosterone is not present in sufficient amounts, the muscle will develop, but it won’t gain a large amount of mass.  The “toned” appearance comes from removing the fat that is covering a well-developed muscle.
  4. Muscle bulk comes from a high volume of work. The repetition range that most women would prefer to do (8–20 reps) promotes hypertrophy (muscle growth). For example, a bodybuilding program will have three exercises per body part. For the chest, they will do flat bench for three sets of 12, incline for three sets of 12, and decline bench for three sets of 12. This adds up to 108 total repetitions. A program geared towards strength will have one exercise for the chest—flat bench for six sets of three with progressively heavier weight. This equals 18 total repetitions. High volume (108 reps) causes considerable muscle damage, which in turn, results in hypertrophy. The considerably lower volume (18 reps) will build more strength and cause minimal bulking.
  5. Heavy weights will promote strength not size. This has been proven time and time again. When lifting weights over 85 percent, the primary stress imposed upon the body is placed on the nervous system, not on the muscles. Therefore, strength will improve by a neurological effect while not increasing the size of the muscles.

And, according to Zatsiorsky and Kreamer in Science and Practice of Strength Training, women need to train with heavy weights not only to strengthen the muscles but also to cause positive adaptations in the bones and connective tissues.

6. Bulking up is not an overnight process. Many women think they will start lifting   weights, wake up one morning, and say “Holy sh__! I’m huge!” This doesn’t happen.   The men that you see who have more muscle than the average person have worked hard for a long time (years) to get that way. If you bulk up overnight, contact us because we want to do what you’re doing.

7. What the personal trainer is prescribing is not working. Many female athletes come into a new program and say they want to do body weight step-ups, body weight lunges,   and leg extensions because it’s what their personal trainer back home had them do. However, many of these girls need to look in a mirror and have a reality check because   their trainer’s so-called magical toning exercises are not working. Trainers will hand out easy workouts and tell people they work because they know that if they make the program too hard the client will complain. And, if the client is complaining, there’s a   good chance the trainer might lose that client (a client to a trainer equals money).

8. Bulking up is calorie dependant. This means if you eat more than you are burning, you will gain weight. If you eat less than you are burning, you will lose weight. Unfortunately, most female athletes perceive any weight gain as “bulking up” and do not give attention to the fact that they are simply getting fatter. As Todd Hamer, a strength and conditioning coach at George Mason University said, “Squats don’t bulk you up. It’s the ten beers a night that bulk you up.” This cannot be emphasized enough.

If you’re a female athlete and training with heavy weights (or not), you need to watch   what you eat. Let’s be real—the main concern that female athletes have when coming to   their coach about gaining weight is not their performance but aesthetics. If you choose to ignore this fact as a coach, you will lose your athletes!

9. The freshman 15 is not caused by strength training. It is physiologically impossible to gain 15 lbs of muscle in only a few weeks unless you are on performance enhancing   drugs. Yes the freshman 15 can come on in only a few weeks. This becomes more   complex when an athlete comes to a new school, starts a new training program, and also   has a considerable change in her diet (i.e. only eating one or two times per day in addition   to adding 6–8 beers per evening for 2–4 evenings per week). They gain fat weight, get   slower, and then blame the strength program. Of course, strength training being the   underlying cause is the only reasonable answer for weight gain. The fact that two meals per day has slowed the athlete’s metabolism down to almost zero and then the multiple beers added on top of that couldn’t have anything to do with weight gain…it must be the   lifting.

10.  Most of the so-called experts are only experts on how to sound like they know what they are talking about. The people who “educate” female athletes on training and   nutrition have no idea what they’re talking about. Let’s face it—how many people do you know who claim to “know a thing or two about lifting and nutrition?” Now, how many   people do you know who actually know what they’re talking about, have lived the life,   dieted down to make a weight class requirement, or got on stage at single digit body fat?   Invariably, these so-called experts are also the people who blame their gut on poor genetics.

These so-called experts are the reason you see so many women doing sets of 10 with a   weight they could do 20 or 30 times. They are being told by the experts that this is what it takes to “tone” the muscles. Instead, they are only wasting their time doing an exercise with a weight that is making no contribution to the fitness levels or the development of   the muscle.

In case you haven’t figured it out by this point in the article, what is currently being done in fitness clubs to help female athletes tone their bodies is not working. It’s not helping these women get toned, and it is definitely not helping improve athletic performance. Maybe it’s time for a change. Contrary to the ineffective light weights currently being used, heavy weights offer many benefits for women including improved body composition, stronger muscles, decreased injury rate, and stronger bones (which helps prevent osteoporosis). Let’s try lifting some heavy weights and controlling our diet and watch this logical, science-based solution make the difference we’ve been looking for.

Tim Kontos is in his ninth year as the strength and conditioning coach for Virginia Commonwealth University athletes. A certified strength and conditioning specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association, Kontos designs, implements, and supervises all strength, speed, and agility programs for all the VCU athletic programs.

David Adamson is in his second year as an assistant strength and conditioning coach for VCU.  He is directly responsible for program design and implementation for men’s and women’s track and field, women’s cross country, and field hockey. Prior to coming to VCU, David worked at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Arizona State University, and Winona State University.  In 2003, he graduated from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, and in 2006, he received his masters in sport leadership from VCU.

Sarah Walls is in her first year with the Rams’ strength and conditioning staff as a graduate assistant working with men’s and women’s soccer, golf, and men’s cross-country. Graduating magna cum laude, she earned a bachelor’s of science degree from Virginia Tech in 2003. Since graduation, she has spent time working at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia in the strength department. While there, Sarah worked with women’s tennis, men’s tennis, men’s volleyball, and men’s soccer. At the same time, she also worked for LifeTime Fitness and helped manage and develop innovative training programs. In addition, she is a contributing writer for the magazine, Muscle and Fitness HERS.

Eat and Move like a Caveman

Start Acting Like a Caveman and Get in Shape by Pete Koch

“There can be no transforming of darkness into light and of apathy into movement without emotion” ~Carl Jung

It starts with the mother of all reality checks; an examination from head to toe of that completely naked person standing in front of you in the mirror.  How are we doing?  If you can see a defined muscular system, you are in an elite group of modern-day humans who are lean enough to see what is intended to be visible.  For all others, a plan of action should be considered that will help you to realize the strong, lean highly functional body that you were designed to have.  It is important to note that the number of obese and overweight people in the U.S. is far higher than it was just ten years ago.  The big three categories that must be addressed to maximize or at least improve the appearance, performance and wellness of the body are nutrition, cardiovascular exercise and resistance training.  One of our (distant) relatives that was not sitting around thinking about all this was Cro-Magnon man, if in-fact he ever sat at all.  On that rare opportunity he had to rest, he squatted for a few moments, and then went back to work until the sun went down.  Ever day he arose with the sun and began the work of survival.  He committed some time to social interaction and child rearing and occasionally grazing on fruits and nuts but most of the time he was focused on staying light, quick and strong to survive.  In case it had not occurred to you, there were likely no fat cavemen because they simply would not have survived.

Nutrition is an increasingly controversial topic as the battle continues over whether carbohydrates or fats are the principal culprits in causing the accumulation of body fat.  What is not subject of debate is that the vast majority of the population consumes too great a percentage of their caloric intake from simple carbohydrates, most notably sugar and grains. The principle culprits are all foods with added sugar from sodas and juices to breakfast cereals.  Simple carbs include the massive category of “snack” foods including all chips, breads, pretzels etc.  The human species by-and-large does not metabolize these foods well and is quick to store them as fat.  The second fact is that overweight people chronically consume more calories than they expend. Thermodynamics Law says:

If energy in = energy out, then there is no change in mass.

If energy in < energy out, then there is a decrease in mass or weight loss.

If energy in > energy out, then there is an increase in mass or weight gain.

The New England Journal of Medicine conducted a study that looked at subjects that repeatedly failed to lose weight on self-reported caloric intakes of 1200 calories.  Researchers concluded an underreporting of actual food intake by 47 percent (+/- 16) and an over reporting of physical activity by 50 percent.  Compare this to the Caveman, who simply ate what he was able to harvest and hunt, stopped when he was nourished, then went back to his full-time job of survival.

Cardiovascular exercise is necessary to strengthen and protect our heart and lungs and condition our bodies for low intensity activity.  It additionally provides us with a method to burn calories to maintain an equitable energy exchange (calories in = calories out).  Mr. Caveman was always on the move so he did not need to ponder whether to use the stationary bike or the treadmill, but what’s most important to modern man is to just get moving on a regular basis.  The most general guidelines as provided by the “Father of Aerobics,” Dr. Kenneth Cooper, state that exercising 20 minutes a day, three days per week is adequate for maintenance.  This is for people already at their goal weight and body fat percentage.  For those looking to lose fat weight, most should increase the number of days per week to six.  The Caveman was moving, hunting and gathering from sun rise until sun set, in a low intensity fashion, burning calories at an elevated level all day long.

The Caveman needed to be strong, agile, flexible and mobile to survive in his rugged environment and that meant the condition of his body became a literal translation to his life expectancy.  For modern man, it’s no different as care of one’s physical self has a dramatic impact on both the quality and quantity of life.  Strength is a crucial and often overlooked physical quality.  In the early eighties came the “aerobics” craze, spearheaded in popular culture by Jane Fonda and her aerobics classes.  This got millions of people moving in group exercises classes, yet during this time the population became fatter then ever.  What was lost when the focus shifted to pure low intensity cardiovascular exercise was the muscular system.  The human species is designed to be strong and move with power in daily activities.  Pure cardiovascular training does nothing to cultivate muscular strength or power and the energy thirsty muscle tissue that accompanies it.  Building muscle happens only with the regular execution of high intensity resistance training whether it’s done with barbells, dumbbells, machines or ones own body weight; it does not matter as long as one works hard.  The caveman never got a day off so he essentially worked out seven days a week.  For most people, resistance training should be performed a minimum of three days per week and should address every muscle from head to toe in every plane of motion (sagital, frontal, transverse).  Resistance training when performed properly is intense, challenging and sometimes uncomfortable work that when embraced, is among the most rewarding expressions of human physicality.

There is much to be learned by examining the evolution of the human species.   The keys to success lie in the diligent application of our modern conditioning techniques and adherence to twenty-first century nutritional guidelines to gain maximum benefit.

When in doubt think and behave like a Caveman by eating a preponderance of foods only available to him in his day and attempt to exercise as frequently and intensely as his lifestyle would suggest.  Start a new trend and do like Pete Koch says “eat and move like a Caveman” and in time you will undoubtedly be satisfied with the appearance and performance of that person standing in front of you in the mirror.

Pumps vs. Drains

Think. Are you a Pump or Drain?

Pumps Versus Drains Source unknown

Traditionally, business / financial gurus talk about pumps and drains in reference to money in vs. money out.

Pumps = Things that make you money
Drains = Things that cost you money

It’s a very simple way of evaluating your money situation. In order to become financially fit, your pumps must drastically exceed your drains. If this is not the case, you must work to eliminate your drains and create more pumps. It’s a simple and very effective concept that anyone can follow to evaluate his or her current financial status and plan for a better future.

With that said, I found that applying the concept of pumps vs. drains has helped me in other, non-financial ways as well.

We can use this concept with our diet and nutritional habits.

Pumps = healthy food that gives you vital energy
Drains = Junk food that pulls down our vital energy

Looking at food in this manner adds a new perspective on the food that we eat everyday and can help us make better nutritional decisions.

Another valuable way that we can use this concept of pumps and drains is to look at the effect we have on others and the effect that others have on use.

Pumps = People that are positive and give off positive energy
Drains = People that drain energy or give off negative energy

If we are positive, we give off positive energy and therefore create a positive environment that people want to be in. On the other hand, if we are a drain, we make ourselves and everyone around us miserable.

I have made a rule for myself to not only be as positive minded as possible but to eliminate the negativity and negative people in both my personal and social life.

The rule is simple:

If you’re a pump of positive energy, you’re in! If you’re a drain of energy, you’re out!

I have always been a happy person but have found that I’m even a happier person now that I have eliminated the negativity in my life. As you can see the concept of pumps vs. drains is a valuable concept to apply in all aspects of your life.

Put it to work for you and reap the benefits of better financial and physical wellness.