By Matt Krumrie
In 2008, Minnesotan Jake Deitchler became the first high school wrestler to make the U.S. Olympic wrestling team since 1976. But less than three years later, Deitchler, then a redshirt sophomore for the University of Minnesota, would announce his retirement from competition. The reason: a history with concussions that dated back to when he was seven years old.
It was a tough ending to a career that was just taking off and served as an unfortunate reminder that concussions don't just affect pro athletes, football players, or adults. In fact, according to the Center for Disease Control, 135,000 children between the ages of five and 18 are treated in emergency rooms each year for sports or recreational-related concussions and other head injuries. While it's nearly impossible to prevent all concussions, the importance of promoting concussion education and awareness is a hot topic in the world of youth sports, including wrestling.
And that's the way it should be, says Deitchler, now a youth wrestling coach set to open his own wrestling training facility in Brainerd, Minnesota.
"The nature of wrestling is very tough," says Deitchler. "It's about being able to go when you don't feel good, being able to tough it out. Your whole life you're taught to go, go, go. But when it comes to your head and concussions, this is the one thing you can't mess with. Most injuries heal with time. When there is certain damage done to the head and brain, you can't take it back. The mentality needs to change in terms of understanding the seriousness of head injuries."
Due to his concussions, Deitchler dealt with depression, memory loss and had a hard time studying. Now as a youth coach, he stresses how coaches and parents need to play a key role in concussion awareness.
"I see kids now who have a concussion and three days later they want to get back on the mat," he notes. "A seven-year-old, he's not able to make that decision at that age. So coaches and parents really need to monitor these situations closely. You have to think long-term and not for the moment. It’s not worth it.”
Safety comes first, says Sally Johnson, executive director of the National Council of Youth Sports and a board member for the National Sports Concussion Coalition, a newly formed partnership of concussion specialists, sports medicine professionals and youth sports leaders created to educate, prevent and manage concussions among young athletes.
"Repeated concussions can result in permanent brain damage and can affect a child's entire life and future,” says Johnson. “Prevention is paramount to protecting the athletes." So is education. Johnson says youth organizations should “bring in a physician properly trained in concussions to talk about what symptoms to look for and how serious concussions can be.”
For wrestlers, focusing on the fundamentals can play a key role in concussion prevention, says Dr. B.J. Anderson, a medical advisor for Minnesota USA Wrestling and tournament physician for the USA Wrestling Cadet and Junior Nationals in Fargo, North Dakota.
"Most wrestling concussions develop due to blunt head trauma—head-to-head, knee-to-head hits, or a direct blow to the head landing on the mat," says Anderson. "Controlled attacks will allow the athlete to perform moves that should reduce the risk of a head injury. Aggressiveness needs to be funneled and controlled. Wild abandonment or overzealous attacking due to frustration can lead to a potential head injury.”
Anderson admits head injuries will still occur, but can be reduced with proper fundamentals.
“All wrestlers need to know how to properly land from a throw to reduce the risk of head injury,” he adds. “This is where coaches need to emphasis the proper methods to land and protect the head from an injury."
According to Anderson, these symptoms are a potential sign of a concussion:
· Loss of balance
· Poor recall of memory
· Nausea or vomiting
"These signs should prompt one to stop practice or competition and talk with the coach," says Anderson. "Anytime one sees a teammate who has been hit and then complains of a headache, appears dizzy or has a loss of balance, they should stop and seek attention."
Throughout the country, state high school athletic associations and youth leagues are implementing strict concussion guidelines that clearly state how long an athlete must sit out and/or what requirements they must pass before returning to activity. In addition to following all recommendations from a physician, Anderson recommends an athlete sit out a minimum of seven days after being concussed. They then must be able to perform all school activities without any problems and then they should start with low levels of exercise, progressing slowly until they can compete free of any headache, dizziness or loss of balance.
Johnson stresses caution and emphasizes the motto "when in doubt, sit it out."
"Keep the athlete out until an appropriate health care professional says he/she is symptom-free and is okay to return," says Johnson.
The consequences of head injuries may not come to light until after several of them, and many years later, adds Anderson.
“It’s a long-term issue, not a short-term one," he says.
While injuries such as concussions can cause parents to think twice about their young athlete competing in physically demanding sports, one youth sports leader offers a reminder on the positives that do come from athletic participation.
“Sports have the power to change the lives of millions of young people in this country by encouraging a physically active lifestyle and by teaching lifelong lessons,” says Jon Butler, executive director of the Pop Warner Little Scholars, an organization that is also a member of The National Sports Concussion Coalition. “We want to make sure no child loses that opportunity due to fear of injury."
Note: This archived feature first appeared in USA Wrestling's newsletter in November 2013.
By Matt Krumrie