Control The Head: Combating Concussions In Wrestling

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Two opponents step onto the mat. They don’t need to size each other up because there are no strangers in the Division I wrestling world.

The wrestlers grab at one another but don’t make much contact. It is as if they are trying to lure each other, casting an arm out like the hand is the bait.

One accepts the challenge and throws his body in with the grab. His head makes contact with an elbow, but, more importantly to the athlete, his hold doesn’t stick.

The next move, he’s a second slow and gets taken down. He has been hooked and caught. This time, his head slaps the mat.

There is no room for mercy and no time for concussion examinations.

The wrestler with his chest stapled to the mat tries to escape the hold. The cloud coming over his brain like a summer fog is painless because of the adrenaline.

His muscles tense as he tries to distance himself from the floor but he stays plastered to the mat as if his sweat is made of glue.

The whistle blows. The ref holds his opponent’s hand in the air. A loss.

Once the sting of the loss disappears, the throb in his head will set in. If it is his first, he might think it is dehydration or simply a coincidence.

Concussions are gaining attention and that is not a coincidence. These injuries are removing athletes from the sports they love in order to prevent damage that could remove the athletes from life as they know it.

Concussions have become a hot topic as of late, specifically for football players, but a sport that often has its potential danger overlooked is wrestling.

“Eventually someone is going to hit heads, or a head on a knee, or a face on a knee,” Ohio head coach Joel Greenlee said. “To me it’s a nightmare. Every time guys hit heads you don’t know what to do. Do you run over there or do you sit back and see what happens?”

Concussions are prominent in wrestling not only because of the physicality, but also because of the style the athletes are taught from a young age.

“Their whole life they’ve been taught, ‘Hey, lead with your head, your head’s the first thing’ and I believe that to a certain extent, but, hey, you have to protect yourself too,” Greenlee said. “Keep your head in there but don’t put the full force on it.”

Breaking the habit of this type of style has been an issue for Ohio All-American Cody Walters. Walters, 174 pounds, missed two months of this season with his second concussion in a little over a year.

“You’re taught especially in defensive wrestling, head, hands, hips,” Walters said. “That means that you always make contact first with your head, so you aren’t reaching and can’t get caught off guard and taken down.”

Since coming back from his concussion, Walters struggled. Last season, Walters set the record for most wins in a single season in Ohio wrestling history. This season, he went 7-3 to end the season and failed to achieve consecutive All-America honors.

“For me, I’m always hard to score on because I’m always leading with my head and I’m pretty hard to get to,” Walters said.  “Now I’m trying to wrestle a little more conservative. I think it has affected me in the outcomes of my matches.”

While every season is important to for a collegiate wrestler, Walters is only a redshirt sophomore. He has time remaining in his career to get back into a rhythm.

Down the road, Walters hopes to continue his wrestling career after college. The Olympic games are the sole destination for wrestlers looking to go to the next level. However, concussions are not something that Walters can ignore going forward.

In 2008, Jake Deitchler was the first high school wrestler since 1976 to qualify for the Olympic trials. He was only 18 years old. Such elite talent at a young age meant Deitchler had the potential to become a legend.

But the 2008 Olympics were the only world games he would ever compete in. Repeated concussions removed Deitchler from his sport and his spot in history.

Concussions don’t discriminate based on weight class or ability. While Deitchler was forced to end his Olympic career after only one set of games, some wrestlers don’t even make it this long.

Tyler Heminger, 125, was near the end of his sophomore year at Ohio when he had to leave wrestling. His concussions varied in severity, but left him with a clouded mind that caused his grades to struggle.

“I had pretty much constant headaches. I almost had a headache for like a month straight,” Heminger said. “The back of your eyes hurt because headaches have a lot of pressure and you get dizzy every once in awhile and it's hard to think straight”

Heminger’s first concussion occurred midway through his freshman year. Several small hits followed by a blow to the mat and a chokehold caused Heminger to go unconscious. The injury kept him out of wrestling for a month before he could return to the mat. Heminger’s next concussion was less severe and only kept him out of wrestling for a couple weeks.

“I probably held back a little bit in order to prevent hitting my head,” Heminger said. “They made me wear a mouth guard because that’s supposed to help I guess. It keeps your jaw in place better. But for the most part I wrestled the same.”

Heminger’s inability to adjust his style in response to his injuries proved detrimental.

“The third one I was hit in the back of the head by another wrestler during practice,” Heminger said. “When I regained consciousness I knew what was going on.”

Upon receiving his diagnosis, Heminger was sent to a concussion specialist.

“It wasn’t really much of a decision,” Heminger said. “When I saw the doctor he was pretty heavy on the medical disqualification because he could tell how severe they were and he was worried I wouldn’t recover from one if I got another.”

Despite the decision’s simplicity, the weight was not light.

“I’ve wrestled my whole life, so I still really wanted to wrestle,” Heminger said. “But then again, at the same time my schooling had started to drop and I didn’t want any permanent damage because of doing something for a couple more years.”

A concussion, by definition, is the collision of the brain with the skull. While the short-term effects can be mild, the long-term impact of repeated concussions can be devastating. Repeated injury can cause serious brain damage and brain diseases such as Parkinson’s, dementia and more.

The balance between preventing long-term damage and still having a passion for the sport is the ongoing issue for people prone to concussions in all physical activities. Few athletes want to risk to potential results from head injuries.

“At a certain point you’re done and you can’t risk anymore,” Walters said.

To prevent concussions in wrestling, Ohio requires athletes to wear mouth guards and offers them more protective headgear.

Mouth guards are supposed to prevent athletes from receiving a concussion if struck in the jaw, but the effectiveness of the mouthpiece is questionable. The more protective headgear is rarely worn because it is bulky and not very appealing.

These measures clearly don’t significantly influence concussions in wrestling. Similar to football, the only thing that will help decrease the number of concussions in a change in culture.

As long as wrestlers are being taught at a young age to lead with their head, it’s going to be extremely difficult to keep the head from receiving extreme impact.

A main reason why this change in style isn’t imminent is because of concussions’ inconsistency. Just like every injury, some people are more susceptible than others.

Matt Stout is the wrestling coach at Upper Arlington High School in Columbus, Ohio. While Stout has athletes who have gotten concussions, he doesn’t feel the injuries are an issue in the sport.

“I don’t think they are any more a problem than other common injuries, and probably even less,” Stout said. “Generally, wrestlers tend to get hurt when they put themselves in bad position and concussions are no different than any other injury in my opinion.”

Part of the reason concussions aren’t taken seriously from a young age is the injury’s increased frequency as competition gets more intense.

The National Academies is a nonprofit research institution that focuses on engineering, medicine, research and science. According to a study done by the Academies, out of the common sports for men, wrestling and lacrosse were the only two that left athletes more likely to receive concussions in college rather than the high school level.

The National Academies also found that wrestling has the second highest rate of concussions per athlete exposure of the top fourteen most common men’s and women’s college sports.

Making it to the collegiate level is what high school athletes work for.

When a wrestler first steps onto the mat at this high level to represent a university, it won’t be the first time he’s had to cut weight in order to prepare, or the only time he’s predicted to be an underdog. But those are the concerns for which high school wrestling prepared him.

What he isn’t prepared for is regaining consciousness on the sidelines with a basic idea, but no clear perception of how he got there.

If it’s his first concussion, he might think it’s not a big deal. The time spent waiting until he can step back onto to mat might feel excessive, or even annoying.

Even if the head injuries don’t cause much pain now, the heartache from never being allowed back on the mat because concussions weren’t taken seriously will generate an unshakeable sense of dread in the pit of his stomach.

Concussions don’t impact every wrestler and when they do occur, they don’t impact every person the same.

But the long-term results are real and even the short-term affect of a single incident, if the injury isn’t cared for properly, can be life-changing.