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Barry Spours has been playing ice hockey since the late 1970s. In that time, he has been concussed at least five or six times “that are memorable”.
“The most serious one was a complete blackout. I woke up on the bench and I didn’t really remember much about the hit,” he says, as he gets ready to take to the ice for a training session at the Streatham Ice Arena in south London. “I had a really bad headache for about a week afterwards.”
Did he take a break or see a doctor?
“No. Back in the old days if you took a concussion your coach tended to tell you to shake it off and get back out there. If you were able to skate, then you were back on the ice,” he says.
In the years since Mr Spours took those blows to the head, coaches in many contacts sports have changed how they deal with concussion. From ice hockey to rugby, there is increased public awareness that such incidents can have long-term health consequences.
It is not just in contact sports that society’s attitude to safety has changed. It is now commonplace in many countries for cyclists to wear helmets and high-visibility clothing. Many runners use app-based training programmes designed to minimise the potential for injury, such as Nike+, MapMyRun or Couch to 5k.
The Reebok Checklight was launched with this in mind. Reebok describes it as an “impact indicator”, a tool to help coaches to assess the potential severity of an impact to the head.
The product consists of a skullcap that is worn either on its own or under a helmet and an electronic strap equipped with sensors to measure the speed and direction of any impact to the head.
A small window dangles out from the back of the helmet, just above the neck, making it possible to see a set of lights that indicate how severe any blow to the head might have been. An amber light points to a moderate impact, while red suggests that the hit was hard enough to cause a serious injury and, therefore, a coach should conduct a more rigorous examination of the player.
“They are not in and of themselves going to stop injuries from happening, but hopefully can help identify players so that they can be removed before the second impact,” says Bob Rich, who was involved in developing the Checklight in his role as director of research in Reebok’s advanced concept group, which develops products at the sports group.
He adds that this is particularly relevant for non-professional sports involving young people, where it can be more difficult for coaches to monitor players. “When you are a professional, you have lot of coaches and cameras watching you. But if it si difficult for a lone coach to do on their own,” he says.
It is not just in contact sports that ideas behind old devices are being refreshed to help minimise risks. Blaze, a London-based start-up, is bringing ingenuity to urban cycling.
Co-founder and chief executive Emily Brooke says she wanted to “find the biggest challenge for city cyclists and tackle it”. Unsurprisingly, personal safety topped the list, and six months of research revealed “79 per cent of bikes that are hit are travelling straight ahead and somebody else turns into them”.
The Blaze Laserlight is a bike light equipped with a separate laser that allows a rider to project the symbol of a bicycle six metres in front of them. The idea is that this shows motorists there is a bike rider in their blind spot.
“A bike in pitch black with a Laserlight is more visible than a bike in broad daylight,” Ms Brooke says.
But technology has its limitations. Both Mr Rich and Ms Brooke pitch their products as tools to help avert potential injuries, but which will not get rid of the inherent risk involved if purchasers have an accident.
Dr Akbar de Medici is a consultant at the Institute of Sport Exercise & Health in London, a leading sports medicine centre that was created following the London Olympics. He works with both the Rugby Football Union and the Premier League, and worries that not all companies are cautious enough in their marketing.
Most sports technology for the general public is “probably oversold” he says, while acknowledging that much of it is useful for improving awareness.
He believes the big change could come when there are better ways of gathering and analysing the reams of data being generated by these products.
“The value is in the data,” Dr de Medici says. If more people send in their data, he adds, they can be analysed. In return, device users can be given more information about how to use this information to improve their performance.
Health hazards in sport will only be eliminated by changing participants’ behaviour or changing the games’ rules. But until such time, new technologies may at least help identify and mitigate some of those risks. They will not prevent anyone from getting injured, but they will make the activities we enjoy a bit safer.