Concussions: Blow to back of head changed Coach Joe Ziegler’s life

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Joe Ziegler: “Even if they have no symptoms, have them sit out and get checked out. It’s always better to err on the side of safety than to be sorry.”

“I was in bed for five or six days and couldn’t do much of anything other than go to the bathroom. Even going in the shower, I would break down and vomit. The first couple days I was sleeping 17 hours a day. I was in a wheelchair at one point. I would start sentences and couldn’t finish them. I still couldn’t hold down much food.”
— Joe Ziegler

Joe Ziegler’s concussion involved a simple serve and a pass. The results were devastating.

“I never felt more incapable of doing human-like things in my life,” Ziegler said. “I’ve been in motorcycle accidents and this is one of the scariest injuries I’ve had.

“Brain trauma is very serious. It shows you how important this major organ in your body is. It puts things in a different perspective. It gives you a sense of your mortality. This is no joke.”

Ziegler, a long-time fixture on the club circuit and currently the technical director and head coach at Virginia Elite Volleyball in Alexandria, was running an academy practice the Tuesday before leaving for the Music City qualifier in Nashville this past February.

And the voice of the JVA Coach to Coach Video of the Week got hit in the back of the head.

“One of our players misfired a serve. I was standing on the same side of the net and it was from probably no more than 12-15 feet away,” Ziegler recalled. “She is a big, strong kid.”

The serve cracked Ziegler “in the back quarter-panel close to the ear,” he described.

“At that point I didn’t have any major symptoms,” Ziegler continued. “I got my bell rung. I was a little dizzy for a second. I went home from practice and didn’t feel anything.”

 

Joe Ziegler

Ziegler and his 18s team traveled later that week to Nashville. It turned out to be a tournament and trip Ziegler would prefer never happened.

During warmups in one of the team’s matches, a player shanked a dig and it hit Ziegler in the side of the head.

“This one was not nearly as traumatic as the serve,” he said.

But the aftermath? A million times more traumatic.

“I had never had a migraine before,” Ziegler said. “The match after that I had terrible head pain. I had to leave a little early. That night at the hotel I woke up in the middle of the night dizzy and confused. I didn’t know where I was.”

Virginia Elite was scheduled to play the next morning.

Ziegler never made it to the gym.

“I woke up early and I was throwing up in the shower,” he said. “I was dizzy again and I couldn’t get my balance.”

Ziegler missed the next two days of the tournament, holed up for the majority of the time in his room at the Renaissance in downtown Nashville.

“Any lights or the TV only aggravated my symptoms,” he said.

On the Sunday the team was to depart back home. Ziegler again couldn’t make it to the convention center.

“I wasn’t feeling much better,” he said. “I wasn’t able to hold food down.”

Ziegler ended up checking out of his hotel room and found a couch in the lobby of the popular Nashville hotel. He ended up falling asleep on the hotel couch.

“A team chaperone tapped me on the shoulder, woke me up and told me it was time to go to the airport,” he recalled. “I guess I looked pretty scary.”

The Diagnosis: Upon landing at Dulles International Airport, Ziegler was picked up at the airport by Virginia Elite executive director Lexi Patton and immediately taken to a local medical facility.

Ziegler was diagnosed with a concussion.

“I got two shots of morphine in the leg and some anti-nausea medicine,” he said. “They stuck giant needles with morphine in my thigh. I definitely didn’t feel any pain after that. I probably slept for a day and a half after those shots.  I was then instructed not to do anything for a week.”

Patton and her husband ended up putting Ziegler in the guest room in their home so he could be properly monitored.

“I was extremely fortunate to have a family-like member who was there for me,” he said. “Bless her soul. She would wake me up and make sure I still was doing OK. She’s like a sister to me.”

She was there for him during a hard time.

“I was in bed for five or six days and couldn’t do much of anything other than go to the bathroom,” he said. “Even going in the shower, I would break down and vomit. The first couple days I was sleeping 17 hours a day. I was in a wheelchair at one point. I would start sentences and couldn’t finish them. I still couldn’t hold down much food.”

Ziegler, also a technology-integration specialist with the City of Alexandria Public Schools, ended up being sidelined from work for the better part of two months.

“It took seven or eight weeks before I resumed normal activities,” he said. “I came back and worked half days before working my way back up to full days.”

As a player, Ziegler said he’d never been hit in the head with a ball. However, he was involved in two motorcycle accidents that involved some head trauma.

“But this was the first time I felt any symptoms,” he said.

Ziegler estimates the first head trauma from the serve likely was traveling in the 40-50 mph neighborhood.

“We radar our kids,” he said. “That was from a float serve that didn’t travel half the court. It probably went 15 feet.”

The second head shot was a simple dig that was shanked off a player’s forearm and hit him in the head.

“The doctor at the hospital said the first one with the serve probably set everything in motion,” Ziegler said. “The other one wasn’t as bad, but because it was within such a short period of time the severity was exponential.”

What can be done? Ziegler, who noted Virginia Elite coaches are trained on proper concussion protocol, as are Virginia high-school coaches, said his club is not immune to concussions.

“We have 76 kids on six teams from 13-18s and we get a couple each year,” he said. “With our academy training, we make sure our drills are run as safely as possible. There always are going to be volleyballs flying around. You have to be as safe as you can be.

“It would be interesting to document where most concussions are coming from. Is it during practice or during matches? I feel there are more in matches, which is ironic because of the amount of volleyballs flying around the gym during practice.”

Ziegler has a suggestion or two on how conditions could be improved on the club circuit.

“There was one tournament this year where I noticed they didn’t have any protective netting,” he said. “I don’t know if it was a cost thing or a way to get more courts in there. You need that netting.

“What about reducing the amount of courts at these tournaments? The amount of courts and the lack of space between courts can be problematic with all the balls flying around. I doubt that will change. Focusing on netting and the amount of space between courts I believe would reduce the amount of concussions and the severity of concussions.

“And when you are at your practice facility design drills as safely as possible. But sometimes that can be tough because most drills coaches run don’t involve just one ball.”

Ziegler would like to see the education aspect of concussions taken straight onto the court.

“Let’s educate coaches and players on the appropriate places to stand on the court during drills and let’s make sure we all are aware of the risks during particular drills,” he said.

Expect the unexpected, he said.

“Freak accidents happen. I was off to the side of the net and got hit with a serve and the second time came off a shanked dig. Approach things with situational awareness. Run drills where you are attacking and serving in one direction. Make sure kids know to put their heads on a swivel when crossing the 10-foot line. Understand that it still could happen, but approach this in a serious manner. This is no joke. Concussions are a very serious thing to talk about.

“Your brain is nothing to take lightly. Someone told me it doesn’t take much more than getting hit in the head with something at 10 miles per hour for it to cause very serious damage.”

And if a coach does encounter a situation where a head injury happens, Ziegler said to take no chances.

“Even if they have no symptoms, have them sit out and get checked out,” he said. “It’s always better to err on the side of safety than to be sorry.”

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