Monday, June 1, 2015

Let's Talk About Concussions in Derby

Photo by A Boy Named Tsunami
I was minding my own business this morning, just reading through Facebook, when I saw a post about worrying about directional hits in derby. The link is here. If anyone knows me, my entire career in roller derby, since 2009, has been with a WFTDA league. I support the WFTDA, but that doesn’t mean I don’t question things we do, such as rule changes. I am an active member in my league, and I am allowed to critically think about what my organization does; if that weren’t true, we wouldn’t vote on rule changes, representation or policy. That’s what makes up a healthy organization; if you can’t discuss your opinions about the organization itself, it’s not worth belonging to. If you don’t feel passionate about your sport, then maybe it’s not the sport for you. I don’t love the polarization over rule sets in our sport. WFTDA, USARs MADE, whatever, they’re derby. If you don’t like one version, don’t play it, but you don’t have to attack the others. That particular article has a bias against the WFTDA rule set, but it did start a discussion about game safety, so I’m glad I read it, and OF COURSE I have an opinion.

Ever since 2011, when people started changing the direction of the game, I wondered if we were setting ourselves up for more traumatic brain injuries. As derby has progressed since then, it seems like officials have gotten less strict about calling clockwise or directional skating. Part of that might be an interpretation of the rules, but part of it might be because the derby community has accepted the idea that clockwise will happen and it’s normal. I’m neutral about skating the opposite direction on the track, but I do worry that we're upping our chances for concussive injuries. Just as a personal anecdote, I’ve experienced many high blocks in the last couple of years due to people turning around or walls completely stopped. I find this interesting only because I’m a six foot tall skater, and before 2012 I could count the number of high blocks I experienced on one hand. Is this a combination of me getting lower and the rules changing? Probably. I can’t say for sure if it’s one or the other, but I do know I’m not the only one who has experienced this change. I'm lucky. I haven't experienced a concussion as of yet, but I do think that this game comes with the danger of getting one. Is it just inherent in contact sports? Maybe, but we should all be familiar with the dangers of a concussion.

It’s important to understand what a concussion can do to your body; many of you are aware of my
I only see Percy in Time Hop now.
friend, Percy Q-­Tion, who died due to complications from a concussion he received. Percy fell in the shower, but anyone can get a concussion, and when you play a contact sport, you’re definitely upping your odds of getting one. I seriously doubt that derby is ever going to be a perfectly safe sport; no contact sport is, but there are things you should know about concussions before you continue to play. Percy died two years ago, but hopefully we can prevent others from dying from brain trauma in our sport by learning about his injury.

1. Concussion is a less scary word for brain trauma. It’s the same thing. If you have a concussion, it’s brain trauma, pure and simple. You’ve damaged your brain, and that’s not a good thing at all. I know that so many of us have watched movies where the hero gets knocked out, wakes up, and goes about his or her business like nothing is wrong. Well, that’s the difference between Hollywood and reality. You just don’t shake off brain trauma; it has to heal, and it can take a long damned time to do so. It can impact your vision, your balance, and your mood, not to mention if it was severe enough, it can kill you. Concussions aren’t cute and dismissible. You should be taking them very seriously. I know several skaters who cannot play derby anymore due to concussions, and that’s really the least thing you should worry about if you get a traumatic brain injury.

2. Anyone can get a concussion. After reading someone’s comment which basically stated that weak people are the ones who should worry about concussions, my eye twitched. This is magical thinking, folks. That kind of attitude floors me, even though I understand where it comes from. We WANT there to be a reason. People who get hurt "deserve" it because they were doing something dumb, or they weren’t training hard enough, or they didn’t lift weights, right? Wrong. Nobody, no matter how talented they are is above the laws of physics. Concussions happen because your brain keeps moving after your head stops, so if you whip your head around due to a high block, your brain keeps moving and slams into your skull. It’s physics and biology. Yes, you can do neck exercises to help stabilize your head, but that can only help a little. I’d really love for people who think only the weak get concussions say that to an NFL athlete; I seriously doubt that any of them think of themselves as weak. Can I be there when you ask, though? I’ll bring the popcorn.

3. When you play a contact sport, you increase your chances of getting a concussion. Most studies show that 1 in 5 athletes who play a contact sport will get a concussion. Those odds aren't great, and the really terrible bit of information is that once you get one concussion, you are more vulnerable to get more. Thanks, brain!

4. Concussions are the gift that keeps on giving, even though nobody wants this gift. Basically, concussions are the fruitcake of injuries. According to recent brain trauma and sports studies, athletes who suffer a concussion are more likely to injure themselves as they recover from their brain trauma. Ugh. Not only do you have to deal with a concussion, but you also have to be more diligent about other injuries. Unfortunately for my friend Percy, this was extremely true. His balance was impacted after his traumatic brain injury and he fell again, causing another concussion. That last one was the one that killed him.

5. Even if you are aware on the track, you could get a concussion. This is more magical thinking. "If I'm aware, nobody will ever hit me by surprise, and I'll be safe!" Well, brain trauma can happen to anyone, even the most aware player on the track. You can give yourself a concussion by going in to hit someone; if your head whips around or snaps back, you're opening yourself up to brain trauma.  Weird accidents happen in roller derby all of the time, and nobody is ever going to be perfectly safe, no matter how amazingly talented you think you are.

6. Brain traumas are different for everyone. Depending on the severity and where the injury is in the brain, the side effects can be varied. Most people recognize obvious symptoms, such as unconsciousness, or incoherency, but there are a slew of symptoms that are associated with concussions. 

  • Unconsciousness 
  • Inability to remember the cause of the injury or events that occurred immediately before or up to 24 hours after
  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Trouble speaking coherently


  • Difficulty remembering new information 
  • Blurry vision
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Changes in emotions or sleep patterns
 I've talked to a lot of skaters who have suffered from concussions, and the symptoms vary; some report extreme moodiness, while others have balance issues and can't concentrate on daily tasks. Each concussions progresses differently, and because of that, it can be hard to pin down whether or not you're suffering from one. That brings us to #7....

7. People who are concussed aren't the best judge of the state of their health. If your teammate is concussed, he or she may not know it. I remember the first time a teammate was suffering a traumatic brain injury at practice; she had no clue what had happened. I'm not even sure she knew she was at derby practice! Thank goodness she went and got medical help, but after that, we made sure to nail down a concussion policy. It's in your league's best interest to have a concussion policy in place. You should have people trained in the basic recognition of concussions and brain trauma. The policy should be in place to help keep your teammates safe, and it should be applied equally to all suspected head trauma incidents. Your league should be talking about head injuries, so you're all vigilant.

8. Helmets will not prevent all concussions. It sucks, but it's true. I wish wish wish we could have amazing helmets that guaranteed to keep our brains perfectly safe from concussion, but alas, it's not meant to be. Of course helmets can protect your skulls from a direct hit, which is incredibly awesome, but your brain can still slam against your skull and get damaged. Just because we wear great helmets, doesn't mean we can't get concussions, but it also doesn't mean it's time to strap a colander to your head and call it good enough. Get yourself a decent helmet and at least attempt to protect your head.

In derby, just like in any sport, an athlete has to figure out what is too much risk. I hope that this post will get you thinking about brain safety and maybe open a dialogue up with you and your teammates.


  1. Very well put. I'll be sharing this with my team. Thank you Q

  2. There's a pretty new therapy that is drug free, non invasive, and has been showing amazing results treating TBI. It's called LENS (Low-Energy Neurofeedback System) and you can find the current list of certified practitioners here:!about1/c1b0l

    Not only has it shown significant results for restoring lost function, emotion, memory retention, etc., but the first few appointments provide an amazingly detailed mapping of the brain and show which areas have how much function and how much depressed function is likely to respond to treatment. Also, it doesn't seem to matter how long ago the concussion was that is the cause of the symptoms. Well worth checking out.

    1. Oh of our sponsors does sports' injury recovery and does LENS. :)

    2. I would be very interested to see a link to a peer-reviewed, double blind study supporting the efficacy of LENS as a treatment for concussion. On reading the above comment, I did some digging to see what I could find, and was unable to come up with any reputable research supporting the effectiveness of the therapy for this injury. While it would be very comforting to believe that there is a "magic bullet" that can treat concussions, merely wishing does not make it so. I would, of course, be happy to be shown to be incorrect.

    3. Adam, I haven't done the research on it, as I often do on things. My opinion of LENS is based on personal observation and what I've heard about it.

      My girlfriend has had multiple head injuries (2 serious car accidents 20 and 30 years ago and a couple of 'minor' bumps in the last 10 years. About a year ago she bumped her head on the cabinet at work when standing up. She couldn't hold a pencil for a week and had a huge drop in her memory, reading comprehension and outward emotional display. She stepped down from managing the office because of it and after a few months, decided she would have to quit her job, quit her masters in counseling program and file for disability. One of her professors had brought a couple in from Salem that had practice using LENS, talking about the various uses for it that were being discovered and implemented, primarily TBI treatment. Within the first 2-3 treatments her vocabulary, memory, reading comprehension, and emotional response all showed a dramatic change. Customers at work and people socially asked her what had happened and that she was a completely different person. I watched her, in just several weeks, clearly surpass her previous level of competence and ability with her school materials and school work. (Aside from the previous TBIs, she has dislexia and discalcula, so the graduate program was always a huge effort for her.)

      Seriously, the change appeared to be near miraculous and brought her to cognitive levels I've never seen in her before and that she says are better than she's had since before her first TBI 30 years ago.

  3. The CDC has a great online training for concussions in sports:

  4. Does anyone keep track of what situations serious injuries occur in?