The WSL Is Implementing New Concussion Protocols This Year - Stab Mag
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Plenty more surfers will be joining Owen Wright in the helmet club at Pipe this year. Photo: Ed Sloane/WSL

The WSL Is Implementing New Concussion Protocols This Year

Plus, free helmets at Pipe!

news // Jan 28, 2022
Words by Mimi LaMontagne
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Traumatic brain injuries are becoming more and more of a visible issue in surfing. 

The list of professional surfers affected includes Owen Wright, Sterling Spencer, Derek Dunfee, Courtney Conlogue, Becca Speak, and just in the past few weeks, Kekoa Cazimero, Finn McGill, and Eli Hanneman. 

Part of this is because the sport of surfing is progressing — bigger waves, higher airs, and more surfers in the water. When boundaries get pushed, the risks increase. 

However, the spike in reported TBIs can also be attributed to advances in science. Up until recently, our understanding of brain injuries has been so small. With new technologies like fMRI and an influx of funding in this space, humans have made huge leaps in knowing not only what a brain injury is and being able to identify it, but also how it’s caused and what it can do to the brain. We also know a lot more about brain health and TBI recovery.

Consequently, many sports have started to implement protocols and regulations around the potential for traumatic brain injuries. As of 2022, this includes the World Surf League.

The WSL is not only providing optional helmets for athletes at Pipeline, but they are also implementing an entirely new Concussion Protocol and Return to Competition protocol in 2022. Stab caught up with Jessi Miley-Dyer, the WSL’s SVP of Tours and Head of Competition, to learn more.

The WSL has decided to provide helmets for athletes at Pipeline this year, setting a new precedent in competitive surfing. What led to this decision?
Athlete safety is a top priority and the WSL fully supports athletes who wish to use protective equipment, such as helmets, during competition. For the 2022 season, the WSL is adopting a new Concussion Protocol & Return to Competition Protocol for the Championship Tour. As part of this protocol, we will have SIMBA helmets available for any athlete who wishes to use one at Pipeline and Teahupo’o. 

While there is limited data on surf helmets, we know from research focused on many other sports such as football, skiing, snowboarding, and cycling that helmets offer protection against head injuries. And, we fully support any athletes who want to wear protective equipment. 

Here’s some info about the product from the SIMBA team: “Created by a team with 50+ years of ocean experience, the Sentinel 1 is a lightweight, low-profile helmet engineered specifically for the safety of surfers and water sports enthusiasts. A unique silhouette protects parts of the head specific to most water sport injuries – including the lower forehead, ears, jawlines, and cheeks – offering riders a safer water experience and heightened confidence.”

A touch of irony exists in the fact that these were introduced the year after “The Spartan” fell off tour.

Were the athletes consulted on this decision? Do you envision a future where helmets will become mandatory, similar to snowboarding and some skate events?
Yes, we consulted the athletes and they are fully supportive of the decision. At present, the use of protective equipment, such as helmets, is a personal choice that each athlete makes. It’s not a requirement. The WSL will be making SIMBA helmets available and athletes are also welcome to use their own helmets. 

The WSL will continue to work with outside medical advisors to evaluate our Concussion Protocol & Return to Competition Protocol. As more research is done in the area, we will have more and better information to help us make informed decisions in the future. 

Can you explain the new Concussion Protocol that the WSL is adopting? 
The main element of the protocol is the concussion baseline, which we are screening all athletes for before the start of the year. This is going to allow us to make informed decisions on the day around the health and safety of our athletes as we will have a comparison. 

The goal of the pre-season baseline test is to better help medical professionals diagnose concussions when they happen, help our athletes in their recovery process, and ultimately, help our athletes safely return to competition.  

To create the new protocol, we consulted various medical experts, both within our WSL medical team framework and also third parties.

And what is the Return to Competition protocol? 
Return to Competition only happens after an athlete has returned to their pre-concussion baseline and they’ve gone through a step-by-step progression of increasing activity. In addition, they may not return to competition until they have been evaluated and cleared to return to competition by a doctor with expertise in concussions. Our Return to Competition Protocol is a key part of our focus on athlete health and safety. Studies have shown that, among other things, an athlete may be more likely to suffer another concussion while symptomatic from the first one and that continuing to compete after a concussion increases the chance of sustaining other injuries, too. 

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The future is safer than the generation that came before them. Photo: Cestari/WSL

Is there any discussion around implementing these protocols on the other WSL Tours, including Challenger, Qualifying, and Big Wave series?
We will be evaluating the rollout of our protocols for the CT as the season progresses, and will continue to evaluate how to implement a concussion protocol for our other tours.

Any thoughts on how we can ensure this issue doesn’t cause young surfers (with nervous parents) to stop surfing?
There are inherent risks in surfing, as with most sports, but we believe that proper training and equipment can help reduce those risks. We have continued to see and support and evolution of equipment, including leashes, surfboards, wetsuits, inflation vests, and safety measures, and we hope that seeing the pros use safety equipment sends a positive message to young surfers.

If you’re interested in learning more about traumatic brain injuries in action sports, or want to support positive change in this space, check out Save A Brain. Save A Brain is a non-profit whose mission is to provide education, encourage prevention, and spread awareness of the long-term mental and physical effects of Traumatic Brain Injury and concussions.

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