Soccer is thought of as a safer alternative to football, with a seemingly lower risk of injury compared to the violent collisions that are common in football.
But concussions are not uncommon in soccer and, with them, the increase risk to athletes of developing conditions like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that can develop from repeated head impacts. Over time, it can cause behavioral, mood, and cognitive changes even if the patient has no new head trauma.
As reported earlier this year in Boston University's online compendium of their various research projects, The Brink (www.bu.edu/articles/2023/young-amateur-athletes-at-risk-of-cte-study-finds), researchers at BU's Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center studied the brains of more than 150 contact sports participants - mostly football, soccer, and ice hockey-who had died under age 30.
They found that 41 percent of them showed signs of CTE, and that young, amateur athletes who play some of the most physical contact sports also seem to be at risk, despite their comparatively short, lower-profile playing careers.
The researchers began by scrutinizing brain samples for signs of an abnormal buildup of a protein called tau-a signature of CTE - as well as for damage to the white matter and other brain tissue. All of the samples were pulled from the BU-led UNITE Brain Bank, a repository of more than 1,400 brains donated after death for study, which is run in partnership with the US Department of Veterans Affairs and the Concussion Legacy Foundation.
Dr. Ann McKee, director of BU's CTE Center, said the study "clearly shows that the pathology of CTE starts early. The fact that over 40 percent of young contact and collision sport athletes in the UNITE Brain Bank have CTE is remarkable-considering that studies of community brain banks show that fewer than 1 percent of the general population has CTE."
This presents a conundrum for parents, McKee said.
"The brain is obviously so critical to a child's productivity and their potential in life," she said. "We want our kids to be physically fit, to get the benefits from playing team sports - that's important for a child's development. But we don't want to sacrifice the brain, and I do think the importance of maintaining brain health is gaining traction worldwide."
McKee is a co-author of the "CTE Prevention Protocol," (concussionfoundation.org/sites/default/files/2023-06/CTE%20prevention%20protocol%20062023.pdf) a joint project between the BU CTE Center and the Concussion Legacy Foundation. It's a guide to reducing hits to the head-and the force of those blows-in a range of sports.
Suggestions in the guide include cutting back on drills that involve hits and teaching defensive techniques that help lower the power of tackles and collisions. The protocol also suggests rule changes, like banning fighting in ice hockey, headers after goal kicks in soccer, and home plate collisions in baseball.
The guide also suggests that coaches be more aware of how their players are doing, and offering broader support when it comes to mental, as well as physical, health. In short, for everyone involved in the lives of young athletes, McKee said it's important to recognize when they need more help than a loved one or coach can offer.
"A lot of people with these symptoms feel desperate and they aren't taken seriously," she said. "They feel they need help, but aren't able to get it for many reasons. A lot of the time, medical care providers just aren't knowledgeable enough about what might be happening in the brain of a person who's had a lot of head impacts. If a person is experiencing symptoms, they need to seek help, because it's highly probable that a lot of these symptoms can be managed."
The Vermont Principals' Association, the governing body for school sports in Vermont, has been taking a proactive approach over the past couple of years as coaches and parents become aware of the need to take concussion risk seriously. The VPA's concussion protocol guidelines can be found at vpaonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/Athletic-Injury-and-concussion-Guidelines.docx.pdf.
We love watching our young people compete on the playing field, but they shouldn't have to risk their future health to do it. For parents and fans, McKee said a bit of attitude adjustment is needed.
"People are very attached to these games," McKee said. "But they are all just products of our imagination and our wanting to be entertained. The rules aren't sacred. If we put our heads together, no pun intended, we can come up with an extremely exciting, entertaining game - which is what everybody wants - that doesn't injure the players in a way they can never recover from."
Winter school sports season begins this weekend
The winter high school sports season in Vermont begins this week, with plenty of basketball and hockey action on tap this weekend.
• Brattleboro got an early start on the boys' basketball season on Dec. 5 with a game against Keene. Everyone else starts on Friday, Dec. 8, as Leland & Gray is at Bellows Falls, while Twin Valley takes on Twinfield/Cabot in the opening game of the Proctor Tournament. Those games begin at 7 p.m.
• Girls' basketball also starts on Dec. 8 with the Leland & Gray Tip-Off Tourney. Brattleboro will face Burr & Burton in the first game at 5:30 p.m. At 7 p.m., Rebels fans will see a rematch between the schools that battled each other last month in the Division IV state soccer championship game as Arlington and Leland & Gray renew acquaintances. The winners of these two games will play for the tourney championship on Dec. 9.
On Saturday, Dec. 9, Bellows Falls and Twin Valley will open their seasons on the road as the Terriers take on Mill River at noon in North Clarendon, while the Wildcats take on Sharon Academy for a 2:30 p.m. game.
• The hockey season begins at home for the Brattleboro girls on Dec. 9 with a 4:45 p.m. game against Hartford at Whitington Rink. The Brattleboro boys also start their season at home when the Bears host Burr & Burton on Wednesday, Dec. 13 at 5 p.m.
• The Brattleboro nordic team is scheduled to start its season at Prospect Mountain in Woodford on Dec. 9 with a skate sprint race. They have two home meets scheduled at the Brattleboro Outing Club's trails at the Brattleboro Country Club - weather-permitting - in a classic race on Friday, Jan. 26 at 3 p.m., and the Southern Vermont League skate championship on Wednesday, Feb. 14, at 2 p.m.
• The Bratlteboro bowling team has its first match on Dec. 9 in Rutland, and will host Fair Haven and Windsor on Dec. 16 at Brattleboro Bowl.
Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum hosts John Caldwell
• On Thursday, Dec. 7, at 7 p.m., Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum will present an online chat via Zoom with the man that many call the "Father of Cross-Country Skiing," Putney's John Caldwell.
Caldwell competed in the 1952 Winter Olympics and later became coach of the U.S. Olympic Cross-Country Ski Team in 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1984. He was also the ski coach at The Putney School from the mid-1950s until his retirement in 1989. Several of his skiers he coached at the school, including the legendary Bill Koch, went on to become Olympians.
He also became the authority on cross-country skiing and wrote The Cross-Country Ski Book, which went through eight editions between 1964 and 1987 and sold a half-million copies. It was the book credited with helping to develop a better understanding of cross-country skiing in North America.
Caldwell celebrated his 95th birthday last week, and is a member of both the U.S. and Vermont Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame. His children and grandchildren have also made their mark in the sport he has done so much to promote.
Moderating the conversation will be Peter Graves, a Vermont native and Nordic skier, who has dedicated his career to the sport. Over his 40-year career, he has served as a coach with the U.S. Ski Team and head coach at Harvard for six seasons. He is perhaps best known for his long career as a television and stadium announcer, having covered 13 Olympic Games. Peter was named to the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 2021.
Register for the event at www.vtssm.org/new-events. The talk is free, but the museum asks attendees to consider making a suggested donation of $10 to support its mission to "Collect, Preserve, and Celebrate Vermont's rich skiing and snowboarding history."
Girls on the Run Vermont announces coach recruitment for spring 2024 season
• Girls on the Run Vermont (GOTRVT) a nonprofit organization that uses a research and physical activity-based curriculum to inspire girls in grades 3-8 to be joyful, healthy, and confident, announced that coach registration for GOTRVT's 25th anniversary spring season is now open statewide.
GOTRVT needs over 500 volunteer coaches to host teams in 2024. This season, GOTRVT will be offered at over 110 locations across Vermont. The 10-week season begins March 18, with teams meeting twice a week for 90 minutes. The 20-lesson curriculum covers topics such as positive self-talk, friendship, managing emotions and more, all created to nourish participants' social, emotional, and physical well-being.
The program culminates with teams participating in a non-competitive, celebratory 5K event on June 8 at the Manchester Recreation Fields - bringing together families, friends, and community members to celebrate the participants' growth throughout the season.
All coaches will be trained in-person and will receive the materials and resources necessary to facilitate lessons for the season. Coaches do not need to be runners but are required to be a minimum of 18 years old. Students in high school may register to be a Junior Coach. All volunteer coaches must complete a background check and online training modules prior to in-person training. Coach training will be offered on Feb. 3 in Brattleboro. To learn more or to register to be a coach mentor, visit www.gotrvt.org.
Senior bowling roundup
• Week 13 of the fall/winter season of the Brattleboro Senior Bowling League at Brattleboro Bowl on Nov. 30 saw Four Seasons (44-21) have their fourth straight 4-1 week to stay in first place. No Splits (37-27) also went 4-1 to move into second place. There's a four-way tie for third between High Rollers, Hairiers, Skippers, and Stepping Stones (all 36-29), followed by Dumblebor (32-33), Four Pins (30-35), and PEWJ (25-40).
Diane Cooke had the women's high handicap game (266), while Shirley Aiken had the high handicap series (633). Eric Brown had the men's high handicap game (256) and series (653). Hairiers had the high team handicap game (890), while No Spilts had the high handicap series (2,548).
Robert Rigby had the men's high scratch series (592) with games of 218 and 203, while Peter Deyo had a 557 series with games of 210 and 195. John Walker had a 556 series with games of 192 and 191, Warren Corriveau Sr. had a 536 series, Fred Ashworth had a 512 series, and Wayne Randall had a 506 series.
Aiken had the women's high scratch series (447), with games of 158 and 155, while Cooke had a 158 game.
Randolph T. Holhut, deputy editor of this newspaper, has written this column since 2010 and has covered sports in Windham County since the 1980s. Readers can send him sports information at [email protected].
This Sports column by Randolph T. Holhut was written for The Commons.