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Concussion Discussion: Encouraging Female Athletes to Be Safer, Stronger

The discussion around sports-related concussion will undoubtedly gain a new head of steam in December, when the new Will Smith movie, "Concussion", hits theaters. The film focuses on the true story of Dr. Bennet Omalu's discovery of CTE, a devastating neurological disease with links to hits to the head in football.

The movie has already sparked conversations regarding the dangers of head traumas in sports and will likely elicit more calls for better safety equipment and standards. However, it's important that we in the sports community also take this time to encourage our young athletes -- especially female athletes -- to be advocates for their own health and safety.

study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that girls and women have a higher rate of concussions compared to boys and men in similar sports.  Another study in the same journal looked at concussion data for athletes in 25 high schools and found that girls in soccer experience concussions at twice the rate of their male counterparts.

But soccer isn't the only sport where girls suffer from concussions more than the boys; according to the NCAA, female athletes are up to three times more likely to experience a concussion in softball versus baseball, and they are nearly twice as likely to get a concussion in basketball. 

Scientists are still trying to figure out exactly why a woman's brain responds differently to these types of injuries than a man's. However, one thing is clear: female sports are equally as rough physically as men's.

As a mental training coach, I work with a number of young athletes, many of whom have dealt with the impact of concussions. I recently worked with a female college lacrosse player who was considering leaving her sport because of the intense pressure she was being placed under, both on and off the field. She's suffered at least one concussion in the past and was worried about the toll continued play would take on both her body and her mind.

I encouraged her to be her own health advocate and to play safer and smarter.  I believe more players, especially female athletes, should consider the following:

1. Demand Better Protection.  U.S. Soccer recently announced limitations on the use of headers in youth soccer as part of the resolution in a concussion lawsuit. This is a wide-reaching step, but more can be done in other sports. As a member of the Positive Coaching Alliance, I believe coaches, parents, and the players themselves need to speak out on this issue and demand better protection, both in guidelines and equipment. I believe helmets should be required in every contact sport. They may not prevent all concussions, but properly fitting headgear can be a first line of defense in a number of contact sports.  

2. Strengthen Your Neck.  Some researchers have speculated that since girls have smaller necks than boys, they are more susceptible to trauma. I advise my female athletes to remember to include their necks in their strength training regimens. While some athletes fear this may add too much bulk to their bodies, I would argue that it doesn't, and safety from concussions is more important than appearance.

3. Play Smarter. While some female sports teams may be trending tougher and rougher, more athletes, especially girls, need to be playing smarter instead. It's one of the first lessons I try to teach all of my young clients -- as an athlete, your mind and your body work in tandem to help you achieve your goals. Be mindful of your body, listen to it, and protect it. Pushing yourself to win doesn't have to mean that you hurt yourself.

K.C. Wilder, Ph.D., is a former college cycling All-American, two-time national masters short track cycling champion, and professional cyclist, certified sports trainer and performance consultant. She's also the author of Tour de You. K.C. lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with her husband and two sons. You can follow her on Twitter @KCWilder, or visit her website at www.drkcwilder.com or her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/kathryn.c.wilder.