Surfer Concussion Protocol
by Corky Carroll
I recently got an email telling me how the Pepperdine Surf Team was working with a new ap called HitCheck to monitor concussions while surfing. This interested me because, as a long-time surfing coach, I can attest to the amount of times people get hit in the head with their boards. The first thing we tell beginners is that when they fall off they should stay under water for a couple of extra beats and then come up protecting their heads with their hands and arms. But do they listen? Most of the time not. Until they get smacked on the melon with a flying board. Then they go, “oh yeah, I see what you mean.” So I decided to investigate what this was all about.
You‘ve probably heard about concussions often in contact sports like football, hockey, basketball, boxing and more. In man against man competition, they are a constant reality. But in surfing it’s kinda more about man against nature, nobody is getting punched or rammed into by somebody else. The danger here is getting nailed with a flying surfboard or getting smashed into a rock or coral reef, even the occasional pier that might get in the way.
The Surfer’s Medical Association states, “Concussions can have deadly consequences for surfers because of the increased risk of drowning during a period of time where the surfer may be confused, disoriented or unconscious. In fact, 8% resulted in near-drowning episodes.”
According to the CDC, 50,000 Americans die from traumatic brain related injuries each day. One in five athletes will endure a brain injury, bringing the yearly total to an estimated at least 1.6-3.8 million. Most can heal if treated properly, but half of these cases remain undetected due to lack of knowledge and education of symptoms. Known as “the invisible injury,” concussions can lead to lifelong ailments such as increased dementia (and like I need an “increase”?), Alzheimer’s, depression and more, as well as changes in brain function if left untreated.
Many athletes hold the mindset of getting back into the competition no matter what they’ve endured. This can be especially true for a surfer who may have traveled across the world to and spent a lot of dinero to ride some perfect waves in some remote location. Studies have shown an average of 55% of athletes neglect to notify their coach of a potential head injury. This would be higher for surfers as very few travel or go surfing with coaches or trainers like in other sports. It’s more like you with a pal or two and that’s it. “Hey Larry, my board nailed me in the head and I am seeing stars.” The normal reaction would be, “hahahaha, do you see Pluto?” Or the more typical surfer, “Ahhh man, you didn’t ding your board did you?” Surfers aren’t the best care givers, trust me.
So now they have this HitCheck, a mobile app that baselines and monitors a persons cognitive abilities. The technology is well received in the worlds of football, boxing and a long list of mainstream sports. In a remote sport like surfing I am thinking it can be a particularly useful tool to have on hand. According to the Director of Campus Recreation at Pepperdine University, Robb Bolton, “It’s a great tool to have out at the beach for our surf team. It’s not as simple for them to access medical care like other teams since they compete remotely in the water.” Pepperdine’s surf team has earned the title of National Champions the last few years and uses HitCheck to keep track of its athletes.
Founded alongside decades of medical research, HitCheck allows clinicians, coaches, parents and trainers to baseline players anytime from anywhere in less than 10 minutes.
The Surfer’s Medical Association reports the most common of head injuries in surfing is direct contact from a surfboard, second to contact with rock or reef. Helmets exist to protect surfers, but you’ll rarely find someone wearing one.
Surfing heavyweights Shawn Dollar, Courtney Conlogue, Mercedes Maidana, Owen Wright, Harley Taich and more have experienced concussions throughout their career.
Santa Cruz big wave charger Shawn Dollar experienced a catastrophic, life-changing accident during Labor Day weekend 2015 off the coast of Big Sur. After hitting the crown of his skull on a submerged rock, he broke his neck in four places and suffered a massive concussion. “My brain looked like I had endured thousands of concussions. I started surfing as a child and you’re constantly getting thrown around in the water and you’re getting little concussions. On top of that, I’ve had about 10 major concussions in my career. Surfing is a contact sport,” said Dollar.
One of the most important lessons an athlete can learn is to be up-to-speed on what a concussion can look like. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms include ringing in the ears, nausea, vomiting, drowsiness, blurry vision, confusion, amnesia and dizziness.
Technologies like HitCheck used at Pepperdine in coordination with brain injury education is bringing changes to remote sports like surfing where an Athletic Trainer or Doctor might not always be around. I would think this is certainly worth looking into for all surf coaches, surf schools and anybody going surfing on a regular basis.
Thanks to Tae Owen at Kafka Media Group for helping me with fact checking this stuff. For more info on HitCheck you can contact them.