How to recruit rugby players and be honest about concussion risk

concussion rugby scrum cap

If you’re like me and coach minors, you might be struggling with strategies to ease the legitimate concerns of parents regarding concussion risk in rugby and other contact sports. At my school, we take a pragmatic and honest approach and in our experience, this is not a major obstacle for recruiting new players.

Before I dive into the details, let’s look at the current state of the literature.

Helmets don’t prevent concussion

Despite a lot of research in numerous sports it’s clear that helmets — both soft and hard — do not adequately protect against  traumatic brain injury like concussion. For example, this randomized trial of nearly 3000 high school soccer players found that soft headgear did not protect against concussion.

Despite this and the overwhelming concussion data from America’s NFL, it’s a shame to see rugby headgear makers measuring impact levels on test dummies and making claims about protection from brain injury.

Mouth guards don’t prevent concussion (probably)

Similarly, many people believe that mouth guards protect against concussion. In fact, when I started coaching 3 years ago I thought the same thing! But back in 2001, a review of the available literature was pretty conclusive: mouth guards do not protect against concussion.

More recently, there is some data to suggest that generic mouth guards used in high school football do offer some protection compared to fitted/custom mouth guards. But this study could not ethically measure concussion rates in football players without any mouth guard at all, leaving any conclusions incomplete.

In the absence of this data, I would argue that the wisest choice for coaches (and parents!) is to assume that mouth guards do not protect against brain injury.

Making lemonade out of lemons

With this information in hand, we came up with an effective recruiting strategy centered around two things:

  • Our awareness of concussion risk factors in our sport
  • Our commitment to teaching the players how to minimize the risk injury

Here’s how an initial conversation might go:

Coach: “We try to minimize the number of concussions by teaching tackle technique that does NOT include the head. We focus on using the shoulders and arms to tackle at or below the waist. And in rugby, any contact with the head is strictly penalized by the referees so it is strongly discouraged at every level. Your daughter must wear a mouth guard to protect her teeth, and is welcome to wear a scrum cap to protect her ears. But please note that neither protects against concussion. Concussions will happen in all contact sports, but we will prepare your child to the best of our ability to minimize the risk.”

Parents generally react in one of two ways:

Parent 1: “I understand the risks and appreciate your candor and the time you took to research this in a thorough manner. We’ll see you at the next practice.”

Parent 2: “I’m not comfortable with that level of risk. I think my kids will do track instead.”

In our experience, this honest and practical approach sets expectations for everyone involved and actually sets parents minds at ease. Last season we recruited 18 Freshmen/rookies, with 3 deciding not to play rugby due to injury concerns.

And for the players and parents who decide to stick around, you’ve already started to reinforce honesty as one of the important team values.

Turnover Time

We’d love to hear how you deal with discussions about injuries and concussions at your team/club. Drop a note below with the details!

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