AFU launches concussion program

Nearly a year and a half ago, Rachel Havens was going for a slide tackle in a soccer game when she hit her head on the ground. The 14-year-old laid on the ground for a few moments and it appeared she just had the breath knocked out of her.

Havens played the rest of the half for Atlanta Fire United and when halftime came, her mother Paige came to check on her.

"Her body was going into shock. She played on adrenaline," Paige Havens said. "She didn't even know who I was."

The scenario has become a common one in soccer. The American Association of Neurological Surgeons reported soccer had more than 24,000 head injuries in 2009. That ranks near the top of sports with the most head injuries along with football, baseball and basketball.

For many athletes, like Rachel Havens, doctors don't know what kind of shape their head was in prior to the concussion. It makes it harder to tell when an athlete should return to competition.

That's why Paige Havens has been instrumental in developing the Concussion Awareness and Prevention Program for AFU. It's a program that educates, trains and tests athletes and coaches.

"The idea is to ensue as many athletes as possible in our club to have a baseline test to give the doctors some background if they've had a concussion and when they are able to return to play," Havens said.

After Havens' daughter suffered her concussion, she went to the board of AFU with her idea about the Concussion Awareness and Prevention Program. They were more than willing to help Havens get the program off the ground.

"The health and safety of our young athletes is top priority at AFU," AFU president Greg Hoover said. "We want to be one of the first youth soccer associations in the state to put this type of concussion awareness and prevention program into motion and lead the way in establishing a model that others can follow."

The program has four parts. The first is education, which AFU will provide for parents, players and coaches on the risks of concussions and how to recognize a concussion.

The second part is training, which teaches athletes proper heading of the ball techniques and ways to strengthen the neck.

A baseline test is the third component for AFU athletes 12 years old and up where athletes will take a computerized neurocognitive assessment test.

Tests are free and will be performed at Peachtree Ridge on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.

The final part is concussion management with Gwinnett Medical Center's sports medicine team.

"We recognize that concussions are a real health hazard in the game of soccer and AFU is committed to doing everything we can to keep our young athletes as safe as possible on our watch," AFU board chairman Scott Grest said.

The program has even reached the Georgia state legislature with the passing of House Bill 284, which expands on the Return to Play Acts of athletic associations.

"The whole idea is to put some emphasis in education," Havens said.

It took five months for Rachel Havens to recover from her concussion. She still plays soccer for AFU and is a defender on the Peachtree Ridge soccer team.

Her concussion was a scary time for the Havens family, but it has brought great education and awareness about concussions. It's something Paige Havens hopes to pass on to other families.

"I cannot impress upon parents and athletes to learn about concussions," Paige Havens said. "It's important for parents to educate themselves about concussions. There's just a need for great education and awareness."