Injuries are a reality of contact sports.
South Whidbey’s football and girls soccer teams had the highest injury rates out of the school’s five fall sports teams, including the number of concussions between September and November, according to figures recently released by school administrators.
Football accounted for 43 percent of the total number of injuries (41) and 55 percent of the concussions (six). Girls soccer had 28 percent of the injuries (27) and 27 percent of the concussions (three). Volleyball was the next highest, with 14 percent for injuries (13) and 18 percent concussions (two). No cross country or boys tennis athletes suffered concussions.
Falcon athletic programs are not brushing off concerns over concussions and injuries. Coaches are working to mitigate them through precautionary protocols and safer tackling techniques. South Whidbey School District also hired its first paid athletic trainer, Nathan Welever, to help monitor injuries and concussions to ensure they don’t result in long-lasting effects.
Welever replaces a former unpaid athletic trainer, Jim Christensen, who resigned after disagreeing with how concussions were handled in the past, an assertion disputed by a school administrator.
A SIDELINE PRESENCE
Welever, a 40-year-old Scatchet Head resident and parent, has been a certified athletic trainer for the past 15 years. He earned a bachelor’s degree in applied kinesiology from Oregon State University and a master’s in science and athletic training from Indiana University. He later spent about 10 years as the head athletic trainer for Langley High School in McLean, Virginia.
Welever, who works full-time as an industrial athletic trainer for an aerospace engineering and manufacturing company, said he was in talks with the district and South Whidbey School Board for about a year and a half before being hired.
Athletic trainers are certified in emergency management, rehabilitation and orthopedic protocols.
The paid part-time position was up for grabs, but Christensen, the school’s sports medicine teacher, opted not to apply.
“I am definitely excited to take on this role,” Welever said. “There is always a need for athletic trainers, especially for head injuries. My position or profession gives the coaches the opportunity to just coach and not have to worry about taking care of the kids. It lets the parents know that their children are being cared for in regards to head injuries by a professional trained in them.”
Welever hit the ground running this fall by attending every football game — home and away — and all other home games for Falcon sports. He also makes himself available for practices as scheduling allows and helps South Whidbey Middle School student-athletes whenever needed.
“I’m continuously building the program,” Welever said. “A lot of what I’m doing is day to day management, tracking numbers, taking it back to the board and looking at the work.”
Part of Welever’s job is diagnosing signs and symptoms of concussions. If an athlete is suspected of having a concussion during a game, he administers a series of balancing, visual and cognitive tests on the spot. Athletes are also encouraged to report to him if they are experiencing symptoms of a concussion the following day or week. He also works with teachers so that he’ll be notified if a student’s academics are affected negatively from a potential concussion.
“It helps for teachers to monitor it,” Welever said.
Poor memory recall is typically a telltale sign for a concussion, while physical symptoms such as nausea or sensitivity to light are also clues. Welever manages their symptoms by monitoring the athlete’s blood pressure, heart rate and cognitive ability.
Some of the major factors for concussions are speed of play and physical impact, Welever said. Visual acuity, spatial awareness, neck strength, equipment and tackling techniques also have positive or negative repercussions.
“The takeaway is that concussions have always been there,” Welever said. “They aren’t significantly on the rise. We just are successfully placing more qualified healthcare professionals on the sidelines — athletic trainers — to assess and properly manage the head injury as the symptoms dictate.”
Welever is being paid by the district as a part-time employee earning a stipend of $15,000 for the year. He’s advocating for the position to be made full-time because he believes it would improve his ability to monitor the welfare of students and reduce costs of traveling off-island for medical referrals.
Superintendent Jo Moccia said the district has no plans to expand the position from part-time to full-time.
“We are happy to have added a paid trainer to the district for the first time,” Moccia wrote in an email. “We are a small district and do not see the need for a full-time position at this time. We are very happy that Nathan has joined our team and is serving our students so well.”
Moccia added that the district has no requirement or legal obligation to have a trainer, and that the position was created because “it is a good practice for high schools to have a trainer.”
Athletic Director Paul Lagerstedt said in addition to Welever’s role, all coaches follow rules outlined by the Washington Interscholastic Athletics Association regarding concussions and head injuries.
According to the WIAA’s website, athletes must be removed from play if they are suspected of having a concussion and cannot return until they have written clearance from a licensed health care provider “trained in the evaluation and management of brain injuries.”
All coaches are also required to go through concussion management training through an online clinic.
Welever is certified to send athletes back into play when they are ready.
Head injuries posed a problem for the football team in 2015 when 10 players suffered concussions. There was a drop in concussions the following year, according to Lagerstedt. Former head coach Michael Coe implemented “Heads Up” Football tackling techniques.
However, a public records request provided to The South Whidbey Record in spring 2017 showed that seven parents alleged Coe did not adhere to, or continue to enforce, the safer tackling protocols. They believed kids were more prone to injury as a result.
The same group later pushed for Coe’s resignation.
Coe later resigned in December 2016, citing a tough commuting schedule and not being a teacher at the school.
South Whidbey junior linebacker Alex Turner disagreed with the parents’ assessment. He said player safety was Coe’s top priority and that he used some of the same techniques taught by head football coach Mark Hodson this fall.
Dean and Lisa Chinnery, parents of a Falcon athlete from the 2016 football season, also expressed concern about medical practices during the 2016 season. They claimed in a recent letter to The Record that Christensen’s advice to the coaching staff at the time was ignored and that it led to their son being put back into a season-opening game against Coupeville after suffering a concussion.
The Chinnerys pulled their son out of the sport after the alleged incident.
After being informed by a Record reporter of the school’s current safety practices, Dean Chinnery said things appear to be headed in the right direction.
“We understand the value of school sports programs and we are very supportive,” Dean Chinnery said. “However, students need proper training and coaches that can minimize injuries. Broken bones can be repaired, but brains cannot. If an injured child does not receive prompt treatment for a head injury, it can have life altering consequences.”
There may have been more than one concussion-related incident in the 2016 season. Christensen said he stepped away from his role as athletic trainer “for good ethical cause” after his concerns regarding an athlete’s concussion went unheeded at a game against Granite Falls.
Christensen claims Lagerstedt and an assistant football coach interfered with his treatment of the player, who he felt had a post-concussion headache that was not improving, and did not follow his recommendation to have him sent to a hospital.
“It is the job of the athletic trainer, as well as the athletic director, to make reasonable decisions on the sidelines,” Christensen wrote in an email. “In my opinion, sending a head injured athlete home with his mother is not a reasonable decision.”
Christensen also said he wrote three separate letters of complaint to school administrators regarding the issue. When they went unanswered, he said saw “no other option other than to resign.” Christensen was never paid and volunteered his time over the past 20 years with the school. He remains a teacher at the school.
Lagerstedt disagrees with Christensen’s version of the events.
“We take all reports of injury seriously,” Lagerstedt said. “The facts as noted are not accurate, and not what, or how, I dealt with them. We will not comment on individual cases, relative to FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) laws.”
Lagerstedt said no formal or informal complaints were made this year regarding how injuries were handled. Lagerstedt added that it was difficult to speculate whether Welever’s hiring or renewed efforts by the 2017 football coaching staff led to the absence of complaints.
Hodson, who returned to coach the football program after leading the Falcons from 2001-2013, is a firm believer in practicing tackling. The more experience a player has in making contact, the better chance he or she has to avoid injuring themselves, he says.
“We’re having physical practices because you have to practice contact,” Hodson said. “The more you practice contact, it’s not going to be a shock to their system when they get in the game.”
Tackling safety and concussion awareness are priorities for Hodson. Prior to the season, Hodson met with parents to discuss safety, concussions and program goals and to alleviate lingering concerns from the previous season.
Hodson teaches a tackling philosophy, similar to what is used by the Seattle Seahawks, that reduces the chance for injury and concussions. The technique, also under the same umbrella as Heads Up Football, is essentially a rugby-style tackle. It focuses on lowering the point of attack on a ball carrier and wrapping up around the legs or chest, while taking the head out of the tackle.
Tacklers also focus on keeping their shoulders and feet aligned to the point of attack. It not only makes tackles more fluid and efficient, but it can help avoid contorting the body in awkward ways.
The entire concept is also applicable for blockers, Hodson said.
Hodson said the players embraced the new technique.
“We’ve been a great tackling team this year,” Hodson said in October. “More open field tackles, more single tackler takedowns.”
Advancements in helmet technology have also helped reduce the risk of concussions, Hodson said. The helmets are sent back to manufacturing company Riddell after every season for safety checks and refitting.
Hodson disputed the number of football concussions reported by administrators. His documentation, confirmed by the district’s head nurse, showed there were only two. He credited Heads Up Football for keeping the number of head injuries low.
Turner credited Hodson for bringing more focus to concussion safety and awareness.
“We did a lot more drills to focus on safe tackling (this year),” Turner said. “Hodson and the rest of the staff did a really great job in my opinion this year at concussion awareness and telling us how important it was to tackle with our head up. You could tell it was very important to him and that’s great to see in a coach.”
STRENGTH IN REST
Terry Swanson, first-year head coach of the girls soccer team, is also aware the sport has inherent risks. The Falcons had three concussion-related injuries this season, two of which were from head-to-head contact. A third came from a fast-moving ball striking the side of a player’s head.
“They were all unavoidable,” Swanson said.
Two players also suffered injuries from “intense play on the field” that resulted in them being lost for most or all of the season. Despite this, Swanson considered the Falcons’ season as having been relatively injury free when comparing it to the numbers of games played (23 in 62 days) and lack of depth on their bench.
“We did not have many players (injured) because of over-use injuries or improper training,” Swanson said.
Swanson had a set of rules to help avoid injuries. The players never trained more than five days per week, including games, and were given two recovery days. Intense summer fitness that focused on endurance, strength and agility also prepared them for the grind of a season.
During recovery days, usually on Friday and Sunday, players participated in yoga and pilates sessions at Island Pilates Center and Island Dance.
“Our players increased their flexibility and core strength,” Swanson said. “The players loved the sessions and felt rejuvenated.”