Lacrosse is a contact sport, involving stick-wielding players and a hard rubber ball. But it places more emphasis on speed and agility than a sport like football, in which every play carries the potential for a jarring collision.
“A great lacrosse play could involve no contact at all,” said Dr. Bruce Griffin, director of health and sports safety for U.S. Lacrosse, the sport’s national governing body. “You have a faceoff, three or four quick passes, and a goal, and it’s just phenomenal-looking speed, grace, agility. No contact at all. Minutes go by where there’s absolutely no body contact at all. That’s the nature of the sport.”
There is a national discussion underway about contact sports and concussions, one that tends to be dominated by the National Football League. But lacrosse -- billed as the country’s fastest-growing college sport -- remains very much a part of that dialogue.
A study underway at Sacred Heart University, a small private school in Fairfield, just outside of Bridgeport, is trying to answer some of the many lingering questions about lacrosse and head impacts, an unavoidable part of the game.
“Not a lot of research has been done on men’s lacrosse,” said Dr. Theresa Miyashita, the study’s lead researcher and an assistant professor in Sacred Heart’s athletic training education program. “Your big heavy hitters are obviously going to be football, ice hockey has become quite prevalent, and soccer has quite a bit of information. But you still don’t see a ton from other sports.”
Miyashita’s study, which began in 2014, is focusing on subconcussive hits -- lesser head impacts that don’t meet the criteria necessary to be diagnosed as a concussion -- and if and how they affect players over time. Namely, in the case of Sacred Heart’s study, their effect on men’s college lacrosse players over a four-year career.
“We just don’t have a definitive answer yet,” Miyashita said of the role of less-severe head impacts. “Theoretically, it makes sense that, yes, there should be a cumulative effect from these subconcussive impacts over time. We just don’t know what that ‘over time’ means, and we don’t know how it’s different from sport to sport.”
The data the study is generating -- after being filtered, sorted, and organized into published findings -- could influence a number of areas within lacrosse, from equipment improvements to rule changes and even how coaches teach the game.
The findings could also have applications across different sports.
“When you see things that are happening that could cause injuries that don’t need to happen, you can take action,” Griffin said, adding that research is the “leading edge” of those efforts.
The study, one of the largest of its kind in the country, presents a rare opportunity for researchers like Miyashita, who has access to nearly every player on the school’s men’s lacrosse team -- a roster of more than 40 student-athletes -- both in practice and in games.
Players participate on a volunteer basis, said Jon Basti, the team’s head coach, and sign an informed consent form. Players can also stop participating whenever they want, Miyashita said.
Each participating player wears a small helmet-mounted sensor called a GForceTracker. As players make their way around the field, the sensor creates a detailed data readout, including metrics like the number of impacts a player sustained, how severe those impacts were, and where on their body they happened.
That information can then be cross referenced with a player’s position, or whether a hit came in a practice or a game. Does a goal-scoring attackman, for example, deal with more hits than a defenseman?
“It’s so much data,” Miyashita said. “It was overwhelming. We have an overwhelming amount of data, and we can’t look at it all because we just don’t have the time, the equipment, the personnel. For one season we’ll have over 1 million data points. So we pick and choose what we actually decide to look at and analyze and write about.”
After practices and games, players return to the locker room, open a small door in their locker, and plug their helmet in to a built-in charging station, which connects to a larger hub. With the helmets plugged in, all of the sensors are turned on simultaneously and the data they contain are downloaded.
Some players said they’ve enjoyed looking at the numbers the device generates.
“It’s just something that’s kind of interesting to see, because, with a lot of guys in a lot of sports, you get a lot of hits to the head and you don’t really know how hard it is,” said Nick Fairley, a senior captain and midfielder who has participated in the study since it began.
Chase Godfrey, a senior captain and defenseman, said he thinks most players keep their focus on the field, and not on head injuries. But he said he thinks the study is a positive step forward.
“I don’t think too many people think about it as we’re playing,” Godfrey said. “But I think it’s definitely very important that they’re doing this. In the past, I don’t think people have studied it as much as they should. I know with football, that whole CTE thing that they’ve been talking about, with all [the health issues] happening later on in life, but I think it’s very important that they’re taking it seriously now.”
Participating players undergo a battery of tests before each season. Those tests, which include evaluating a player’s balance, vision, memory, and other neurocognitive functions, generate a series of baseline scores. At the end of the season, players repeat the testing process. If they perform worse or if their scores have a "deficit," it could point to some sort of negative effect, Miyashita said.
“Right now we want to know, can we say, ‘One year does not have an impact on these scores. Two years of play does not have an impact on these scores. Does three years, will four years have an impact?’” Miyashita said. “That way we can say, ‘When you finish your four years here, you might notice deficits here, here, and here. So here are some programs that we can implement to reverse these trends.’”
Researchers are also looking for correlation, Miyashita said, adding that she hopes the study will eventually yield multiple four-year samples as players come and go from the program.
“Can we make a more definitive statement saying, ‘If you experience X number of impacts over the course of one season, you are more likely to see a deficit here?’” she said. “If we do see deficits, that would be the goal, to be able to correlate it.”
Sacred Heart’s study and others like it are part of an upward trend of money, time, and effort being spent on figuring out how head impacts affect lacrosse players at various age levels, Griffin said, a trend that has already led to systemic change.
“The human body is a mystery, obviously, and it’s rare for any disease or any illness or injury to be totally eradicated,” he said. “But the amount of money and funding that’s been put into concussion research compared to the previous 10 years is astronomically high. Things are happening so quickly, it’s great… Our understanding of head injury is changing on a monthly basis, which is fantastic.”
The study’s most important metric, Basti said, isn’t how many Gs a hit was, or at what angle a hit was sustained. It’s the amount of people it can help protect.
“If we could save one person’s life because of this study, that would be success,” Basti said. “If we can do something to make one person’s life better when they’re through with either playing football, or lacrosse, or hockey, or soccer, at the end of the day, that’s what this is about, that’s why we’re doing this.”
Jackson Mitchell is an intern at WNPR. An earlier version of this story referred to Sacred Heart University's location as north of Bridgeport. It has been adjusted for clarity.