Head injuries are the hot-button topic in youth athletics. And the precautionary measures to avoid brain trauma are reaching far beyond the football field and hockey rink.
The soccer pitch has become one of the most recent fields of battle in defending athletes against concussions. And one local program is among the first proactively attempting to head off head injuries.
Holy Family girls soccer is in the distinct minority when it comes to mandating protective headgear. Coach George Connolly, however, believes Manitou Springs -- the other team he knows of to mandate headgear -- and his Tigers are ahead of the curve when it comes to adopting the piece of equipment.
"Back in the dark ages, nobody wore shin guards," the Holy Family coach said. "Headgear is the same way now. I think in four or five years they will be mandatory."
Tigers girls soccer focusing on head injuries coincides with Colorado enacting some of the nation's most stringent laws regarding concussions.
As of Jan. 1, the state now requires coaches to bench players as young as 11 years old when it is believed they have a head injury. Players then require medical clearance before returning to the field. And the laws require coaches to take free annual online training to recognize concussion symptoms.
Some of the focus on head injuries has, in part, been due to high-profile legal cases against the National Football League from players claiming long-term cognitive damage from playing the sport. But it was an incident closer to home that spurred Connolly into action.
The coach had to start his season without his anticipated leading scorer after Maddie Kuzik sustained a concussion in club play.
"Any player that gets an injury that could possibly affect their playing careers, even the rest of their lives, you end up wanting to take any precautions you can," he said.
Soccer is among one of the sports most prone to head injuries.
A 2007 study published in the Journal of Athletic Training found concussions account for 8.9 percent of all athletic injuries. The findings showed soccer produced an above average amount of concussions for both boys and girls players. For boys, the study stated concussions accounted for 9.4 percent of all athletic injuries and for girls 15.1 percent.
The most common factors in sustaining the injury, the study found, were collision with another player, a piece of equipment (such as the goal post) or the ground. Other peer-reviewed studies have shown little damage is done from repeated contact with the ball, since soccer balls contort to the head when struck and do not produce the force necessary to cause injury.
Headgear is meant to mitigate the serious blows sustained in collisions and the company manufacturing the equipment Holy Family is utilizing believes it has the independent research to back it up its protective qualities.
Tim Killeen, Full 90's vice president of sales, pointed to one study in particular published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. The research reported players who did not wear headgear were 2.65 times more likely to sustain head injuries in serious collisions.
"There has been other independent testing that has shown our headgear reduces a blow by 50 percent," Killen said. "The equipment is designed to cover around 70 to 80 percent of where most collisions occur, so it offers substantial protection."
Headgear has gained traction recently, with Killeen crediting headlines about the NFL lawsuits in generating interest in his company's product. But the piece of equipment locally has drawn mixed reviews.
David Castro has had headgear on his radar for the past five years or so, but the Legacy coach and Broomfield Blast assistant director of coaching has viewed them as faddish. While he voiced no opinion one way or another about their usefulness, in his experience most headgear have a similar destination -- on the ground.
"It seems like most players wear it for a game, then throw it on the sidelines," he said. "It's an individual choice to wear one, but appears to have a tendency to get in players' way."
Making headgear mandatory is an issue that has come in front of Colorado's club soccer's governing body. But it is not something Colorado Youth Soccer is going to move forward, the organization's CEO Nate Shotts said.
Shotts was even a bit dubious about headgear's overall usefulness in curtailing the effects of a major head-to-head, head-to-post or head-to-ground blow.
"My personal opinion, it's not going to prevent a serious head injury," he said.
As far as Holy Family's players are concerned, they understand why they are wearing the headgear. But they also admit, the equipment has taken some getting use to -- especially when it comes to controlling the ball.
"The ball doesn't go where you want it too," Tigers forward Kendall Russell said. "I've had to follow the ball more with my eyes to compensate and throw my shoulders into the header to get the ball what I want it to do."
There are coaches beside Connolly who believe in the value of headgear. Niwot's Jeremy Drake is among their ranks.
The coach of 4A's ninth-ranked Cougars has players who have suffered previous head injuries invest in the piece of equipment. Drake estimated about four of his girls wear them this season. But if the coach had his druthers he would have his entire team wearing them, voicing his belief in the protective value of headgear.
The barrier to Niwot's adoption is cost.
"If I could pay for them out of pocket I would, but they run about $44 per headgear," Drake said. "And they're not something like new cleats, where players are begging parents to buy them."
Drake also believes along Connolly's lines that it is only a matter of time before headgear is a mandated part of the game. What it comes down to for the Niwot and the Holy Family coaches, injuries are bad enough in sports, let alone ones that could potentially last a lifetime.
"These are talented young ladies, who have bright futures ahead of them," Connolly said. "We should do everything to protect that."