Head first: CSU prof tapped by NCAA, DoD for concussion research

A Colorado State University professor will be part of a national push to boost research on concussions, in an effort jointly funded by the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the U.S. Department of Defense.

Doug Coatsworth, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies and director of CSU’s Prevention Research Center, has teamed up with Alissa Wicklund, a neuropsychologist and concussion specialist at the Orthopaedic & Spine Center of the Rockies in Fort Collins, to study underreporting of concussions in 12 northern Colorado middle and high schools.

Doug Coatsworth
Doug Coatsworth

The duo will receive $400,000 over three years for one of only eight research projects announced Feb. 5 as part of the NCAA-DoD Mind Matters Challenge. The NCAA and DoD are investing in the initiative to learn more about the dynamics around concussions incurred in youth sports, college athletics and the military.

Two-pronged effort

The Mind Matters Challenge includes an educational program challenge and a research challenge; the Coatsworth/Wicklund project was selected from 22 finalists announced last summer in the latter category. Their project is titled, “Assessing and changing the culture of concussion reporting in middle and high school youth: A community collaborative approach.”

Coatsworth said the initiative will examine whether we are creating a “culture of resistance” around reporting concussions. Often, he explained, athletes are unwilling to reveal a head injury because it means they could lose playing time.

“It may also be seen as weak, or letting your team down because you can’t play,” he said.

By the same token, Coatsworth added, members of the military sometimes don’t report concussions due to “a culture of being tough. And if you report, you may be taken off duty.”

The project

When concussions go unreported, he said, the injury can end up being compounded. In their project, Coatsworth and Wicklund will examine the concussion culture at schools in the Poudre and Thompson school districts by collecting information from students, parents, coaches, teachers, administrators and athletic trainers. Through interviews and surveys with those individuals, they aim to develop a new way to measure the “culture of concussion reporting” and then guide these groups through a collaborative, science-based process to identify and implement programs and policies needed to align with best practices around how concussions are handled. They will engage two middle schools and two high schools in each of the three years.

Melissa George, a research scientist in the Prevention Research Center, is also an investigator in the project.

Alissa Wicklund
Alissa Wicklund

Coatsworth said having Wicklund co-lead the effort is key.

“She recognizes how different teams understand concussions differently,” he said. “Subcultures may exist within the schools: How the girls’ volleyball team reports concussions may differ from girls’ soccer. This is a terrific university-community project with Alissa and her organization.”

‘Exciting opportunity’

“One aspect of the project is to examine how young athletes may be influenced by their relationships and social environments when they choose to report or to not report concussions,” Wicklund said. “Doug’s expertise in prevention research provides an exciting opportunity for collaboration, with the goal of assessing young athletes’ behavior and providing solutions within a specific sports culture.”

Coatsworth and Wicklund gave a presentation and answered questions at the Feb. 5 event held to announce the grants at the NCAA national office in Indianapolis.

The NCAA and DoD joined ranks more than a year ago to create the NCAA-DOD Grand Alliance, which includes a CARE Consortium concussion study and the Mind Matters Challenge. The alliance’s goal is to provide compelling, research-based models that create a cultural dynamic in which every head injury is reported and managed properly, rather than concealed. Launched in November 2014, the Mind Matters Challenge includes $7 million in funding for the educational and research approach. The six education challenge winners were also recognized at the Feb. 5 Mind Matters event.

The Department of Human Development and Family Studies is in CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences. The Orthopaedic & Spine Center of the Rockies and its doctors provide patients with specialized orthopaedic, spine, sports medicine, sports concussion and podiatry care at its offices in Fort Collins and Loveland.