Volleyball has a concussion problem.
It’s not new, but it’s there, and, from all accounts, it’s worse than ever.
When we asked longtime Arizona women’s coach Dave Rubio if he’d ever dealt with concussions, he said simply, “We all have.”
Asked Creighton coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth, “You think it’s because it’s becoming an epidemic or the game is becoming more dangerous? I don’t know the answer to that question.”
We don’t either. But in this series we offer stories that tell you what the protocols are for various organizations, the science of concussions, and, from a USA Volleyball team doctor, ideas for prevention. This is the first of 12 stories that will be posted at VolleyballMag.com this week.
We are also trying to do our part, partnering with the Texas Advantage Volleyball (TAV) club and director John Sample, who is offering FDA-approved baseline testing by the company ImPACT for just $5.
TAV, one of the largest and most success clubs in America, uses this testing and Sample is trying hard to spread the word. Look for that story and link on VolleyballMag.com next week.
“We think it’s a tool that everybody should be using and we made it mandatory here,” Sample said. Sample speaks from personal experience, since his daughter, who coaches at TAV for him is dealing with a concussion and he, too, was concussed during a warmup two years ago.
But the truth is we don’t have many answers, just questions.
Former USC men’s player Michael Mullahey, who is dealing with getting rocked in the head two years ago, offers this in his first-person account:
“ … I think it is safe to assume that the majority of these injuries are accidental. Short of making everyone wear helmets, or penalizing hits to the head, there aren’t too many ways to prevent volleyball-related concussions. Thus, I would hope that the research would focus on the recovery aspect to concussions.”
UConn coach Kris Grunwald said something we all think about.
“You look at the level of our game. Kids are getting bigger, stronger, faster, just like in every sport,” Grunwald said. “The ball’s traveling harder, kids are moving faster, kids are interacting, whether they’re hitting their head against a teammate or the floor. It’s a progression of the athleticism of the game.”
Not everyone, however, agrees with the idea that concussions are an epidemic in our sport.
A couple of college coaches we visited with think it’s simply media awareness, prompted by what happened with the NFL. Some coaches have been lucky and simply have not had a concussion problem.
Asked one skeptical college coach, “Do you check a soccer player every time they head a ball?”
A few others acknowledged that the problem is real, but that it’s always been there.
“I think we’re diagnosing them more,” said JT Wenger, a former high-level men’s player now the women’s coach at UT Arlington. “There was no shortage of guys getting blasted in the face on the block.”
No matter what, coaches and trainers don’t screw around with blows to the head, taking into consideration both safety and liability.
“I think there were probably a lot of concussions in the past that were misdiagnosed,” NC State coach Linda Hampton-Keith said. “I wonder if it’s because our attention is there now. My husband used to play football and he said he knows for sure he had three concussions. And it was like, ‘Hey, are you OK?’ and then you go right back on the field.
“There’s been a culture shift in our acknowledgement of it and our treatment of it and just being able to take our time and examine it. We know what the long-term effects are.”
The idea for this series was hatched almost two years ago when a national-championship TAV coach from Dallas, Corinne Atchison, shared her story about how concussions sustained from being hit by balls in practice changed her life in a terribly negative way. Luckily, Atchison is doing well, still winning titles for TAV, and writes about what she’s still going through as part of this series.
“Every person has said they exact same thing: They never thought it could happen, they never understood, they never empathized with someone until it happened to them or their daughter,” Atchison said. “Now they are stuck in this nightmare and trying to make sense of the situation, some of which could have been prevented.”
In practice, perhaps, but in matches?
Volleyball concussions occur three ways: Players, coaches or fans get hit with a ball; players run into the body part of a teammate; or players hit their head on the floor or another inanimate object in the gym, like the bleachers or net pole.
It’s not limited to indoors. Most of our stories are about indoor players and coaches, but it also happens on the beach.
When you read these stories, chances are you will be affected and stunned. Some are hard to believe, their post-concussion symptoms so severe.
We have the story of one player, Mackenzie Jensen, who missed almost four months of school when she was in the eighth grade. There’s the family in Pasadena, the Lunds, where three of the four sisters have dealt with concussions, one so severely that her career ended as a sophomore in high school. We have the stories of a couple of other coaches, Joe Ziegler and Rob Holley, whose lives have never been the same after being concussed.
Alexa Richardson is a beach player at Stetson who has been concussed more than once and then there’s the story of last year’s University of North Carolina team, a program beset with more injuries than can be imagined, most of which were concussions.
And there’s no rhyme or reason.
“I had a kid get nailed in practice, just rocked, and I was like, OK, this kid is out,” Hampton-Keith said. “And they did a concussion test and she’s fine and three plays later is back in the practice. And then you have a kid who literally gets grazed on the side of her head and she’s out. There’s no exact science and there are so many variables that we can get ahold of other than to be safe.”
Concussions are there on all levels.
In 2016, USA women’s coach Karch Kiraly waited until the last minute to announce his roster, because libero Kayla Banwarth — now an assistant coach at Nebraska — was dealing with a concussion.
“I don’t remember the first time I got a concussion, but I know I have two recorded,” said Banwarth, who laughed and added, “obviously I’ve been hit in the head a lot.”
Banwarth got one while the USA national team was playing Hong Kong in the Grand Prix in late June before the Rio Olympics in August. She was hit in the face in practice by teammate Foluke Akinradewo.
“Honestly, she didn’t really even hit it that hard, but because I’d had one before I was maybe more susceptible,” Banwarth recalled. “We were in Hong Kong for another three or four days and I just had to sit in the hotel room and go crazy.”
Banwarth said she had headaches, nausea, and “really bad sensitivity to light and noise. It was no fun.”
But the USA was far from finishing pre-Olympic competition. The team still had the Grand Prix finals in Bangkok in early July.
“They wanted to announce the team before the finals of the Grand Prix, but we waited until after because we were waiting to see if I could compete at all,” Banwarth said. “I played in the semifinals and the finals and then they announced it right after. Yeah, they had to delay the announcement for two weeks.”
Banwarth said she was fine after that. She still has symptoms but admitted she’s not sure they’re concussion-related.
“Yeah, I get headaches a lot, migraines that are pretty bad,” Banwarth said.
“It’s a little bit scary, especially when you hear about the links to depression and suicide. A lot of professional athletes deal with depression and anxiety and those kind of things and I’m certainly one of those athletes. I’ve dealt with that kind of stuff before.”
Banwarth, always one with a good sense of humor and level perspective, offered this:
“I hate to say it, but it’s just sports and that’s kind of what happens. I think the concussion protocol has become more important.”
Conversely, the last three USA men’s Olympics coaches, Hugh McCutcheon (now the women’ coach at Minnesota), Alan Knipe (men’s coach at Long Beach State) and John Speraw (the UCLA men’s coach) all said they’ve dealt with concussions — but rarely.
“We’re all over it here at UCLA, all over it on the national team, but it just doesn’t happen that much in our sport,” Speraw said. “At the end of the day, and we have numbers on this, it’s one of the safest sports in America. And we should be talking about that.”
We interviewed scores of women’s college coaches about concussions.
Iowa State coach Christy Johnson-Lynch said she’s dealt with more than her share of player concussions.
“We make sure we do drills that don’t endanger them. Early on I had a kid get hit on an open net doing a drill and thought I’m never doing that again,” Johnson-Lynch said. “Just common-sense things that coaches can try.
“You can’t erase them but you can try to reduce them. And teaching them better technique to go to the floor. I’ve had players go to the floor pretty hard and bang their heads. I think when I first starting coaching you just felt like it was part of the game, you got knocked around a little bit and it was no big deal. Now you learn more and more how critical it can be and give them the time they need.”
Villanova coach Josh Steinbach recalled “Two concussions on one play. We were at Marquette, it was a setter dump, our left back was pulling in and my right back dove for the ball and they just went head to head.
“That was the next to the last week of the regular season, so one was lost for the year and the other was able to come back and play two weeks later.”
“It’s scary. It’s a hard injury to deal with.”
If you know Hawai’i coach Robyn Ah Mow-Santos, you know she’s pretty easy going. Even about concussions.
“Let’s see, I had one, two, three from Heather Bown,” the former Olympic and pro setter said. “Danielle Scott hit me once. And then I got two from overseas middles.”
As a young athlete, she said she brushed it off.
“In the beginning it was OK with the first couple, and then it took longer to recover.”
Luckily there are no lasting effects.
“Nah, I’m OK. I listened to my trainers,” she said.
But last season, her first as head coach at Hawai’i, there were two player concussions.
“Health before anything. I tell them about all my concussions. It’s serious.”
Among the players who missed time because of concussions last NCAA season was All-American Khalia Lanier, one of few USC players out in the recent past after being hit in the head. Michigan State senior Maddie Haggerty missed significant time her senior year in high school with a concussion. The list is long.
UCSB’s Lindsey Ruddins, who led the nation in kills per set last season, said she got her first concussion in the eighth grade when she ran into a teammate and then hit her head on the floor.
“It was like getting two for one,” Ruddins cracked. She said she was out two months.
“I couldn’t do anything without getting a headache,” Ruddins said, adding that she’s been hit in the head twice in college and was out a week each time.
In 2015, for example, Mercer lost three players to concussions. Many more are documented, many are not, but if you ask almost any college coach about concussions, they’ve got a story.
Finally, there’s Hayley Hodson, the product of Newport Beach, Calif., and the 2015 NCAA national freshman of the year for Stanford.
Hodson is suing both the NCAA and Stanford but declined to talk about that. She medically retired in 2017 due to post-concussion syndrome. She wrote about it on her blog in June 2017.
Hodson, reached while in Europe last week, said it wasn’t lost on her that she was on vacation while the NCAA season began.
“I want to tell my story and will when the time is right,” Hodson said.
She added that she was glad the issue is being explored in such depth by VolleyballMag.com.
“My hope is it can shed some light onto the realities of concussion and post-concussion syndrome as well,” Hodson said.
“Volleyball world, we have to change the way we think about, talk about, and treat concussions. They’re not funny. They’re not to be underestimated. You only get one brain and every hit counts. Over time, we are learning that tremendous damage can be done from repeat sub-concussive hits and head traumas. Volleyball is more dangerous than ever before and we’ve got to do everything we can to protect athletes’ brains.”