Governor General’s “We Can Do Better” Conference Part 1

December 23, 2016 by  
Filed under Canadian Sport Features


Part 1 of a 2 part article on concussions By: John Paton, President of School Sport Canada & Execut ive Direct or of t he Albert a Schools’ Athletic Association

On December 6, 2016, I had the privilege of attending a one-day concussion conference titled “We Can Do Better” at the Governor General’s residence at Rideau Hall, Ottawa, along with about 80 other s from across Canada who share similar concerns about sport safety in Canada and who represent the sport sector in Canada.

Hosted by Governor General, His Excellency David Johnstone, the day was started with a welcome from Federal Minister of Sport and Per sons with a Disability, Hon. Carla Qualtrough, who noted that our collective efforts should be targeted at all levels of sport, including but not limited to school and community sport.

The first set of panelists in this relatively small gathering included professional athletes Matt Dunnigan (CFL), Eric Lindros (NHL), and Étienne Boulay (CFL). Each of these athletes talked about how incurring multiple concussions impacted their career s. Étienne noted now he would sometimes under-perform in baseline tests so that when retested, if he had incurred a concussion, his condition would not be as noticeable as if he had tried 100% in pre-season testing; he did not want the guy behind him to take his spot on the team, so he did what he felt he needed to do; he noted how he would lie about his condition. Matt Dunnigan talked about the number of concussions he had in his career several in the game that would end his career. He noted how difficult is it to speak clearly and concisely without impediment when he is broadcasting, and he shed a tear as he recalled the challenges he has faced as a result of the multiple concussions he incurred and how he took his son out of football in Grade 9 due to concussions he had incurred. Long stor y short, is that Dunnigan’s 6’7″ son eventually decided to be a walk on in his 5th year of univer sity in Louisiana after being cleared by a doctor, and made the team; he even made it to a bowl game, no doubt making his dad proud. One of the things that struck me was when Matt Dunnigan said we need to start a “Raise your hand” movement as he raised his hand in the air.  His intention was to teach children and youth to raise their hand to let the coach know that they have sustained a concussion. The “raise your hand mantra”


gathered some momentum during the day. Eric Lindros also said he failed his baseline medical on purpose and implored those present to train teacher s to under stand concussions so they could apply this knowledge in school …”even if it means an extra three days at teacher s college”, he said. He noted how there are so many silos of research and practice regarding concussions and it would make a lot of sense to have just one set of concussion protocols across the country.


Lindros noted that we need to breed honesty in reporting of concussions and in self-reporting of concussions; the insinuation being that accurate concussion reporting is sometimes not present if it means an athlete may lose their contract of their spot on a team. Amongst other things, he said it is critical to include parents in the concussion education process.

In our discussion groups we were asked what can be done to encourage athletes to report impact to the head. Certainly it was noted that coaches play a significant role in encouraging such honesty and promoting a “Raise your hand” philosophy would certainly be a step in the right direction. But the real question is, do all coaches share that philosophy. Would all coaches put the athlete ahead of the team? Would each athlete value himself or her self more than the team and say “the health of my brain is more important than today’s win”? Not wanting to let one’s peer s down is tough for young athletes and “raising their hand” is a tough choice to make. However, what I took away from the day was that as tough as that choice may be, and as much as a young athlete, or even a more mature athlete for that matter, may feel reticent to “raise their hand”, it is incumbent on all coaches to tell their athletes that nothing is more important than the health and well being of the individual and the most courageous decision an athlete can make is to identify when they thing they have “had their bell rung and therefore effectively ask to be taken out of the game.” What I had not thought of was that as much as we educator s and coaches may think that a student or athlete may be able to self-report a head injur y, it is possible that the head injur y itself may take away the ability of the athlete to notice they have had a concussion or to realize the seriousness of the hit to the head they have sustained as one of the speaker s noted. So this opens up the discussion of who needs to be aware of concussion symptoms, and the answer is “anyone who has a responsibility for our youth”, be it a coach, a parent, a teacher, an athletic trainer or whoever.

Rowan Stringer was a high school student in Ontario who died in 2013 after a second serious concussion in a ver y short period of time in rugby; one in club rugby and one in school rugby. Her father spoke with great emotion of the importance of even engaging youth in recognizing and/or supporting teammates who have been concussed. He relayed a stor y of a youth volleyball team who refused to take the court when the coach would not sit out a player who had “raised his hand” as Matt Dunnigan would say, due to a hit to the head. To me, this accentuates that we underestimate the power of youth. Another speaker used Mother s Against Drunk Driver s (MADD) to emphasise the point that a similar thing can happen in sports. That is, as a person should not let a friend drive drunk, a sports teammate should not let another teammate play after a suspected concussion… or at least support that teammate in telling the coach the truth about how they are feeling after an impact to the head. But just as important is that the player who is taken out of the game because of the concussion needs to under stand that he/she is valued and that is why they have been taken out of the game. They need to under stand that they are not letting the team down by leaving because of a concussion or suspected concussion, but in fact WOULD be letting the team down if they played concussed and the injury became worse. ”

Goaltender for Canada in the 1972 series, 6 time Stanley cup winner, lawyer, author and politician Ken Dr yden gave an excellent keynote in which he outlined a list of things that he felt needed to be done to address concussions in this countr y. He said he believes that the greatest risk to sport today is head injuries. Dr yden spoke eloquently about the love Canadians have for sport “we love our games”, but followed that up with a comment that “the fantastic can’t be lost and the awful can’t continue.” In other words, he supports how wonderful sport is, but recognizes that sport is at a point in its evolution where serious attention needs to be given to concussions at all levels and in an ongoing basis. He was certainly right when he noted that we put more of our selves into sports than ever before. Training methods and scientific knowledge surrounding sports is miles ahead of where it was just a couple of decades ago. Dryden notes that athletes are faster and stronger, and play is more dangerous than ever before. He also said that while scientific resear ch is both necessar y and important, that in order to effect positive change regarding concussions, we need to get to the decision maker’s … and who are the decision makers when it comes to school sport? To me, it is a long list of both individuals and organizations … people like Superintendents, principals, athletic director s, coaches, parents, athletes, politicians and others; groups like: education ministries, sport ministries, national sports organizations, provincial and local sports organizations. As Dryden said “Who are the decision makers, and what is stopping you”? What I believe is also critical in this discussion is the need not to be a fearmonger or a doomsday philosopher. Shame on those who would use the risk of injury in sport as a reason to prevent youth from participating in that sport. But such may be the approach of those who would bubble wrap their children for all time. Those who would not let their children climb a tree for fear of them falling and getting hurt” …

Stay tuned for Part 2 in the Februar y Edition of the ASAA Newsletter.



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