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Smart Mouthguards Help High-School Football Coaches Make Safe Decisions From The Sidelines

footballmouthguardThe last thing an athlete would want is to be benched, even temporarily. Practices and games are important to players, as they help them improve and be able to achieve the guts and glory under Friday night lights. However, when Craig Olejniczak, the athletic trainer of high school football, sees one of his players involved in a hit of almost 90 g-forces, he recommends that the coach takes him out so he can undergo further evaluation. Although it’s a tough decision to make, it can prolong a player’s competitive career.

Olejniczak is an athletic trainer at Middletown High School in New York. He monitors every athlete with a vector mouthguard and software developed by iBiometrics, a company located in Kirkland, Washington. These mouthguards are equipped with sensors that collect data on every tackle and hit Olejniczak’s players absorb, and this allows him to make safe decisions that help protect them.

Increased public awareness concerning concussions in youth football players has greatly helped stimulate the appeal of mouthguards to athletic staff and coaches. According to Harpers Company, the U.S. experiences around 1.6 – 1.8 million sports-related concussions every year. Ideally, a study published in the Journal of Athletic Training showed that concussions represented 8.9% of all high school athletic injuries, with football and soccer having the highest rates. Another study revealed that averagely, a high school player is twice as likely to sustain a brain injury as a college athlete. In 2009, emergency rooms reported 250,000 concussions for those aged below 19 years. That figure was 150,000 in 2001.

The mouthguard sensors feature ESP Chip Technology, which is designed to measure the linear and rotational accelerations of head impacts during games and practices. A gyroscope and an accelerometer produce data, which helps coaches and athletic trainers extrapolate the severity and origin of the impact. Coaches and Team trainers work off a dashboard, which shows the live feed.

Sensors embedded in the mouthguard collect data before storing it on the device for the software to analyze it, thereby, helping trainers and coaches create actionable plans that help athletes evade future injuries. It shows users that a profound impact has occurred, and they are able to see a 3D rendering where an athlete absorbed the hit and overlay it onto a heat map.

This translates into real-time data that helps coaches make immediate play changes such as taking off players who have been involved in a hard hit, which can trigger threshold set by the team, leading to flagged alerts, which can be pushed to mobile devices as well. Moreover, teams can tailor those thresholds to individual athletes based on their history and any health problem that requires monitoring.

The information is normally stored on a local SQL database, where it syncs to a secure cloud environment as soon as the coaching staff has an internet connection. The secure cloud environment is always powered by Microsoft Azure and the software is written for Windows 8 and Windows 10. Although most schools use PCs and laptops, a few use Surface tablets.

In 2013, Middletown High School became the first high school in the U.S. to test the innovative mouthguards as part of a pilot program. Today, around 60 teams i.e., 6,000 athletes use the Vector. Middletown also recruited various students from the school’s National Academy Bio-Med program to help monitor the program from the sidelines. These students are from the school’s sports medicine club and the STEM program. They act as sideline assistants when the season is on course. In the event certain thresholds occur, they deliver their finding to the districts athletic trainer, Olejniczak, who in turn, analyzes the data in order to take further action such as a referral to the team doctor, who specifically deals with concussion management and injuries.

Last season, every Middletown varsity player had a mouthguard during games. But, according to Rhodes, it’s important that the mouthguards be tested during practices as well.

At first, I was skeptical of any sensor technology, says Dustin Fink, athletic trainer at Mt. Zion High School. Fink also manages the Concussion Blog through which iBiometrics contacted him. Both the blog and the mouthguards came to picture in 2010. To me, nothing could replace what I do as a healthcare professional and athletic trainer. But if a sensor was going to be there, this made sense. It was arguably the only sensor I felt comfortable with, depending on my fact-checking and background, says Fink.

Sensors like those equipped with mouthguards offer feedback which coaches, athletic trainers, and anyone monitoring physical performance find useful, he adds.

The movement of sensors in space is enough to help accelerometers tell where the first impact originated from, and this enables them use that model to create an image on the dashboard, which corresponds to the location on the head.

The Vector software delivers advanced computerized reports that allow staff to easily browse numerous impacts across multiple players. Also, there is the user-friendly interface, which allows staff to quickly see the history of a player’s entire collision or even tailor the search to a particular, individual hit.

Fink says that this led to a big difference half-way through the season. The coach and athletic trainers started depending on the data as one way of honing players’ techniques. For instance, seeing profound force at the top of the helmet implies players are dropping their head low, thus, are exposing themselves to spinal injury risk. Coaches also find Vector software handy when it comes to investigating the hits that lead to concussions, which vary from one player to another. That could result in adjusting thresholds, which trigger when to pull players.

Those players who at first felt uncomfortable with information, which could pull from games and practices, came to like the benching, and this also prevented them from losing face before their peers, as staff deferred to data.

The purpose of the Vector MouthGuard is to alert coaches and athletic trainers of possible hits and jarring movement on the field. The software is able to create reports from the sidelines indicating the area a player has been hit and the magnitude of the impact. This data helps the athletic staff train a player on ways they can improve their technique as well as change behavior while on the field.

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