How a sport like judo tackles concussion safety without gear

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Football gets the most attention for head injuries, but we found out it’s not the riskiest sport in Hawaii when it comes to concussions.

Hawaii is unique with a statewide concussion awareness program now several years into working with just about every public and private school with sports teams.

They’ve also been tracking data, and it’s eye-opening about head injury risks across sports our kids play.

The Hawaii Concussion Awareness and Management Program (HCAMP) has data over several years about thousands of athletes across the state, and it knows where each of the 1,000 concussions last year among 9,000 players comes from. It’s not all football. They’re seeing it in other sports.

The sport with the highest number of concussions versus the number of athletes is girls judo.

“A lot of it, it’s very surprising to us locally, as well as nationwide, that judo, girls judo, is our number one,” said Ross Oshiro of HCAMP. “They don’t have the techniques of how to fall, how to tumble, so that can contribute to a lot of their injuries.”

For boys, the sport ranks up there too, just not with the highest rate of concussion.

“For boys, it’s a little further down on the road after football, basketball, soccer, then boys judo,” Oshiro said.

Always Investigating headed to the annual judo state championship to find out, is all this data being put into action to keep kids safer?

“Can you tell me one or two things that might have changed in the past couple of years based on what they learned?” we asked Blake Moritsugu of Hawaii High School Athletic Association (HHSAA).

“The double-knee drop seoi nage was considered a violation now, so that was one of the throws that they felt was endangering for concussions and head injuries, so that’s now considered a violation as a throw,” he replied.

This and other newer violations were put into the rules in the past year.

“We as officials try to change behavior by disqualifying athletes. By disqualifying athletes, the coaches are then forced to train them properly so then there is no technique where they are controlled and putting them on the head. It should be putting them on their back,” said Ed Hanashiro, judo commissioner for officials.

“Even today, have you had some disqualifications yet over heads?” Always Investigating asked.

“Exactly. The whole point of judo and high school judo, and I tell my officials, it’s safety, number one,” Hanashiro said.

Besides outlawing certain moves, are there other steps to be taken? What about additional safety gear?

“That’s a hard one to say as far as safety gear,” Oshiro said. “In other sports, like battle sports — boxing, taekwondo — they’re taking direct blows to the head, whereas in judo, it’s not so much they’re hitting the head physically with the fists, it’s more when they’re falling on the ground that they’re getting concussed.”

“My feeling in over 30 years of doing judo, if I put on head gear, I wouldn’t be able to judge that and then probably that head gear would get caught and then that would endanger my neck,” Hanashiro said.

Unlike football, where helmets and other gear are essential for player safety, in a sport with no gear, it all comes down to training and constantly evolving the sport.

“I think a lot of it is teaching the technique and they progress from learning how to tumble, learning how to throw, and then they progress the athletes instead of trying to jump them into competition too soon,” Oshiro said.

“I think our trainers and I think all the leagues and the experts involved, they’re doing a good job,” Moritsugu said. “They try to limit the amount of concussions we have and we’re getting very knowledgeable about it. We go to workshops and we do what we can to improve our conditions and make it safe.”

We learned this information about concussions in sports after we started looking into the protective gear for Hawaii’s public school football players. View that story here.

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