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College athletes helping to make sports safer for all

In this 2015 photo Kevin Guskiewicz, professor and former chair of the Department of Exercise and Sports Medicine at the College of Arts and Sciences, conducts research on helmet sensors at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C.
In this 2015 photo Kevin Guskiewicz, professor and former chair of the Department of Exercise and Sports Medicine at the College of Arts and Sciences, conducts research on helmet sensors at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C. AP

Kendall Thomas knows firsthand the steep physical price that elite athletes too often pay.

A goalkeeper for the women’s soccer team at Davidson College, she has endured three major knee injuries during her soccer career and watched many teammates suffer concussions, which are prevalent in the sport.

Her experiences have fueled Thomas’ passion for helping athletes prevent injuries. Last summer, she got a chance to do something about it, while also delving into another of her passions – numbers.

Thomas, a junior math and computer science major at Davidson, and her classmate George Baldini, a computer science major who is also a manager of the Davidson’s men’s basketball team, interned with Athlete Intelligence, a Seattle-based sports technology and analytics company.

Thomas and Baldini were given reams of data collected from thousands of high school and college football players across the country who wore sensors developed by Athlete Intelligence. The devices collected biometric data and information about hits to the head. The two students’ mission: probing that data for “coachable insights” that sports programs can use to keep their athletes safer.

Their opportunity came courtesy of their Davidson math professor Tim Chartier, who has developed a national reputation for his expertise in sports analytics, working with the NBA, NASCAR, ESPN and fantasy sports sites. In 2013, Chartier approached the Davidson men’s basketball team about providing data analytics. Five years later, Chartier and a team of 60 students are part of “Cats Stats,” a thriving campus group whose work includes analytics for numerous Davidson sports teams.

Under Chartier’s guidance, Thomas and Baldini began looking for interesting patterns in mountains of data provided by Athlete Intelligence. They also decided to enrich the raw data they received with additional, highly relevant context, such as the size and positions of the football players in the study and other key factors that impact performance, such as elevation and air temperature.

By the time they were done, the students had turned up an array of valuable insights. Quarterbacks, they found, actually take harder hits in practice than they do during games. While most football players tend to get hit in the front of the head, quarterbacks and special teams players are hit more frequently on the back of the head – suggesting that players at those positions should have more protection built into the backs of their helmets. Data also showed that, as games progress and players tire, linemen tend to drop their heads, leading to more hits on the crown of the helmet – a dynamic that can lead to neck and spinal injuries. Their innovative work attracted the attention of the PBS show “Nova Next,” which interviewed Chartier and Thomas.

Davidson isn’t the only higher education institution in North Carolina studying how to prevent, track, or treat concussions, which have become a major focal point for football and other high-impact sports, as evidence mounts that head injuriescan have devastating consequences for player health over both the short and long term.

Researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill, for instance, are engaged in a three-year, $2.6 million study funded by the NFL to study professional and amateur athletes who have sustained concussions while playing football, soccer, ice hockey and other sports. They aim to evaluate the effectiveness of existing strategies for treating concussions. In a separate $400,000 study, UNC-Chapel Hill and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point are exploring how to help athletic programs and the military develop cultures in which head injuries are reported promptly instead of being hidden, as they have been historically.

Meanwhile, Duke’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute is working with the NFL to develop safer helmets. And a groundbreaking study from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center that was published in a leading medical journal documented how frequently youth football players are hit in the head during practice. The study found that nine players had more than 2,000 combined hits to the head over 30 practices.

These homegrown projects have the potential to pay off soon with better equipment and improved treatment. Over time, they can also transform the safety and performance of athletes everywhere.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Cities, a Founding Partner of HQ Community, and author of Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives. Stephen Martin is chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro.They can be reached at authors@forwardimpact.info and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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