Arizona Volleyball 2018: The Year of the Concussion
Before the 2018 season got underway, VolleyballMag.com started a series focusing on concussions in volleyball. In the first article, Arizona coach Dave Rubio is quoted as answering, “We all have,” when asked whether he had experience with players getting concussions.
Just not in the kind of numbers Arizona has seen since he gave that interview.
During the Nov. 2 match at Washington State, starting middle blocker Devyn Cross became the sixth Wildcat to suffer a concussion this season when she was hit by a ball in the third set. Commentators for the Pac-12 Network reported that Rubio told them the volleyball team suffered more concussions than the football team in 2018.
“When two players went down (against Washington State), you just couldn’t imagine that many players going down, another one with a concussion,” Rubio said. “But I was really proud of the way the team handled it. In the 27 years I’ve been here, I’ve never experienced anything like that.”
Prior to Cross, Arizona lost Shardonee Hayes, Kendra Dahlke and Paige Whipple at various times in the season. Each was out of competition for at least a week while in concussion protocol. Freshman defensive specialist Erin Williamson was out of practice for a period of time, and redshirt sophomore Liz Shelton has been out for the entire Pac-12 season. All but Williamson were starters when they suffered their head injuries.
So, is this a trend or just an unfortunate fluke? Why are so many head injuries occurring in what’s supposed to be a non-contact sport?
While volleyball is one of the safer sports to play, there is some risk of heady injury. Earlier this season, Shelton said she felt like they were just unlucky in that the “wrong balls” were finding them. Rubio said he thought it was time to buy a lottery ticket, because the unlikely was becoming common.
Injury studies of the sport indicate that the most common time-loss injuries (i.e. those that require the player to miss practice or competitions) are lower-leg injuries, especially ankle sprains. Depending on the study, ankle injuries make up anywhere from 25-44% of all time-loss injuries for female players.
But head injuries are fairly highly-ranked among causes of time-loss injuries, as well. For female players, they make up almost 15% of such injuries. For males, they are even more common.
The most common cause of a volleyball-related concussion is ball contact, although collisions between players or with objects are also culprits. For Dahlke, the head injury came when she ran to save a ball and was hit in the head by a teammate’s knee.
Some head injuries are even more unexpected. Williamson’s concussion was caused when she hit herself with a bar while weight training.
The strength of the players in today’s game may cause ball contact injuries to happen more frequently, but that’s only speculation. Some doctors believe increases in diagnosed concussions are simply related to more awareness.
The biggest problem with concussions in any sport is that they are diagnosed based purely on symptoms. There is no current scan or blood test that can tell a team’s medical staff that a player in concussed. There’s no obvious structural damage.
That also makes it difficult to establish that a player has healed sufficiently to return to competition, which can take radically different amounts of time from one person to another.
“That’s the one thing that we do know,” Rubio said. “The timeline on those kids coming back who have experienced concussions are different. Everyone is different in terms of how they respond and how long it takes.”
As for prevention, it’s debatable whether anything can be done to make volleyball safer. Players will always be at risk of being hit by a ball while playing. In such a fast-moving sport, collisions are bound to happen. And, sometimes, there will be flukes that have nothing at all to do with the sport itself, like Williamson’s injury.
Still, the organizations around college sports are taking action to make sure the athletes are as safe as they possibly can be. Sometimes they have no choice.
After a 2014 lawsuit, the NCAA began taking steps to address concussions in college sports. Beginning in 2015, it became an NCAA requirement that schools in Power 5 conferences submit concussion protocols to the NCAA and that those protocols meet certain criteria.
Few volleyball programs have suffered the rash of concussions that Arizona has seen this season. The nearest comparison is the 2017 North Carolina Tar Heels, who struggled to a 14-14 season. The fact that the 24th-ranked Wildcats ended the regular season at 22-10 (11-9 in the Pac-12) and made it to the NCAA Tournament despite the injuries is a testament to the depth and resilience of the team.
For more information on injuries (including concussions) in volleyball, see this article in the Jan-Feb 2018 edition of Sports Health and this one in the Apr-Jun 2007 edition of the Journal of Athletic Training.