The general consensus is that not even a revamped protective helmet would have saved Australian Test batsman Phillip Hughes. His death in November 2014 was a ‘freak accident’ but as one pundit put it, ‘one freak accident too many.’ Helmets and headgear are worn in a range of sports at both junior and senior level despite the fact that their usefulness remains contentious.
It’s worth taking notice when Sports Medicine Australia, our most high-profile sports science organisation, sees fit to remind us that there is no good clinical evidence to support the argument that wearing protective headgear will prevent concussion. And there’s always that old ‘increased risk-taking’ chestnut implying that any form of artificial ‘protection’ may encourage individuals to place themselves in harm’s way.
Wind on Water
Kitesurfing is a boom sport in WA mainly due to the fact that we have some of the strongest, most consistent sea-breezes in the world. The ‘Fremantle Doctor’ not only drops the temperature 10-15 degrees in a matter of minutes but also provides plenty of aerial thrills for those strapped on to one end of a powerful expanse of colourful nylon.
Michael Oliver is an experienced kitesurfing instructor with a long-standing involvement in water sports.
“It’s compulsory for all kitesurfing organisations with a teaching license to make sure every student wears a helmet and a life-vest. But it’s also interesting to note that the majority of people, once they’ve completed the course, choose not to wear them.”
“They’re much more likely to be worn by elite surfers in big waves, particularly if they’re near a shallow reef. Obviously, there’s a much greater chance of hitting your head in challenging conditions.”
It would seem that male vanity plays a part, too. Some kite-surfers are pretty keen to look like Formula 1 drivers.
“There are a number of different models around varying in price from around $90 to $300. For some people it’s as much about aesthetics and ‘looking good’ as any concern about safety,” Michael said.
“But it’s important to remember that you’re attached to a giant and very powerful kite. If you lose control, things can go wrong very quickly. There was a tragic accident at Cottesloe a few years ago when a guy died after getting slammed into rocks.”
Rugby’s impact zone
Rugby at the elite level is not for the faint-hearted. Pekka Cowan, former Wallaby and current Western Force player, wears some of the most spectacular headgear you’re ever likely to see on a football field.
“It was funny how that came about, I’d split my head just before I did an on-camera interview so I was all bandaged-up. Putting on some headgear made me look a bit more presentable. After that I decided to wear it all the time so I chose the loudest and proudest model I could find!”
“The company that makes it ended up giving me a contract and they send me a whole pile of kids’ sizes and I throw those into the crowd after the match.”
Pekka has a short and informed response to Sports Medicine Australia’s claim regarding a paucity of evidence supporting headgear’s efficacy against concussion.
“Well, they’re not the ones running onto the field! I haven’t been concussed since wearing headgear and I’ve definitely avoided cuts and lacerations. I wouldn’t mind seeing their evidence because it gets pretty interesting when two guys each weighing 120kg run into each other on purpose.”
“If there’s protective equipment around, then I’m all for it. I love the game but it’s good to minimise the risks.”
Hockey’s round missile
In terms of padding and protection, the goalie is the most fortunate player on the field, says Hockeyroo goalie Rachael Lynch.
“Impacts from the ball are a lot more common that you’d think, especially in training. I still feel the thump if it gets me in the face-mask. It often gets dented and the entire thing has to be replaced.”
“There was a very sad case several years ago in Perth where a young woman was killed when the ball deflected off her stick and hit the back of her head.”
“The ball is hit at upwards of 100km/h off a drag-flick on a short corner. The players on the field are standing right next to me and charging out so they need to be brave. One of the girls got a fractured eye socket and trained in a modified foam mask but you can’t wear protection like that in a competitive game.”
“The officials are very aware of any piece of protective equipment that might actually injure an opposition player.”
“In a World Cup match a couple of years ago I got hit in the face by another player’s knee. It knocked my helmet off and the rest of that game was a bit of a blur. You see plenty of bruises in this sport!”