Head Games: sport concussion movie

In the last few hours, there have been a number of reviews posted about Head Games, and for a good summary of the movie see the LA Times by Kenneth Turan. Rather than write this type of review, I wanted to offer my personal take on the film as a parent of a child with concussions and as concussion educator, and why I think parents should see Head Games.

In my work as a concussion educator, I have found there are two kinds of parents in this world: those who don’t think their child will get a concussion and those who guessed wrong. This movie has something to offer both types of parents.

I used to be that parent who never thought about concussions and the risk to my three boys, even though I personally have a long history of concussions. I would have thought why watch a movie on concussions? Do we next need a movie on the dangers of sledding or skateboarding? 

But now I know better after my son has suffered eight concussions; and sadly, I know if I had seen this movie years ago I would have made better choices as a parent when to allow him to return to sports. I also trusted helmets would protect him from further concussions.

What does this film offer the “un-experienced” parent? This film will help to educate parents who have not experienced concussions on why a child with possible head injury needs to see an MD, be watched for signs of concussion, and have a careful Return To Play plan. A parent’s (and a coach’s) response to pull a child out of a game or practice as soon as there is a possible injury is about the best line of defense available to try to mitigate a second blow and very serious consequences that can result.

The harsh reality right now is that there are no proven types of equipment to prevent concussions. There are no drugs or any specific medical procedures or equipment to help heal concussions. The only real defense right now is a parent’s response time and what steps a parent takes when his/her child sustains a head injury. The only way parents can respond quickly and effectively is by having the education they need as parents BEFORE they need it. BE PROACTIVE!

Is the film only for parents whose kids play sports? No, this movie is important for all parents because while it focuses on sports concussions, concussions can happen to any child in any activity– on the field, in the rink, in the bathroom, the kitchen or in the backyard. Outside of sports concussions, careless horseplay between kids, car accidents with new drivers, and teen alcohol-related accidents also play a large role in youth concussions.

Now what does the movie offer for the parents who know all to well the dangers and effects of concussions? The movie clearly shows the conflicts parents face in allowing their children – and we do make the decision – to let our kids continue to play certain risker sports – football, soccer, cheerleading, lacrosse, hockey, etc. As a parent who has watched her child suffer eight concussions it was hard to watch Headgames not because it is too graphic, but rather because for me it is too personal, so it took several viewings of the movie to really be able to get some distance.  I cried several times knowing exactly what it feels like to sit in that doctor’s waiting room, in front of his desk as he gives the news, in the MRI lab waiting for my child to emerge, and at home wondering when the symptoms will end and my child will be healed. It was painful but good to see the conflict on the big screen that sadly other parents experience too.

It was painful but reassuring to see other loving, educated parents struggling with the issue of safety and risk and allowing a kid to play the sport he/she loves.  It is that balance of risk and reward that is so hard to resolve over time. And as one of the experts in the movie reflects, “What is the level of respectable risk and reasonable reform?” Can we really make the sports our children play safer or their childhoods less risky; and if so, at what cost to their freedom and joy?

On a personal note, last year I pledged to donate my brain to the BU CTE Study which is featured in this film. This movie shows the freezer and cutting board where my brain is “headed.” As I watched the doctor’s purple-gloved hands slice through another volunteer’s brain, I swallowed hard but even so, I am even more determined that my brain go to research when I saw what has already been discovered in the study. I want to be part of the solution even if it is just be donating my gray matter. Ironically, yesterday was day that had been scheduled for my two and half hours interview by a CTE lab researcher on my concussion history. In recalling the sports and non sports concussions I have experienced, I realized time and time again how I did not properly treat my concussions, and that may have over the years may have led to the place I am in now. I wish doctors knew then what many know now and I had seen a film like this years ago.

It this an earth shattering movie? It depends what a parent already knows about concussions. For those of us who live in the concussion world, Head Games reiterates what we already know.  If you had the privilege of seeing Chris Nowinski speak in person, you already are aware of much of the movie’s message. But if you haven’t seen Chris speak and if you don’t know much about concussions, I think you will leave the theater with a new prospective and a lot of unanswered questions.

Head Games raises concussion awareness and provides important information for parents: not all the information I want parents to know, but the topic cannot be covered in an hour and half by anyone.  And while no film is perfect, just the fact that it exists at all is amazing – that concussions are finally seen as important enough that a group of people spent time and money to make this first feature film.

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