Protecting the head: AFL to trial new helmets

Revolutionary new helmets, custom-built for AFL footballers, are being designed as the game ramps up its efforts to fight concussion.

The helmets, whose design is being funded by the AFL, come as the league's chief medical officer, Dr Peter Harcourt, declares the competition has barely scratched the surface in understanding concussion.

According to the AFL's chosen researcher, Dr Andrew McIntosh, helmets being worn in football codes are less effective than those used more than 15 years ago.

Helmets worn by AFL footballers, such as Melbourne young gun Angus Brayshaw, are specifically designed for rugby league and union.

"If you were thinking in terms of our understanding of concussion, if it's a 100-kilometre journey, we're probably 15 kilometres down the road. So, we've got a long way to go," Harcourt said.

Fairfax Media can reveal that two different helmet specifications are in the process of being developed, the "basic" and the "advanced", with the former having already been presented to AFL representatives.

McIntosh, who has a PHD in biomechanics and has been researching and analysing helmets for more than two decades, says the AFL helmet is looking promising.

"There is a high likelihood that they'll reduce concussion," he told Fairfax Media.

He said helmets used in rugby league and union, that you can buy from any sports store, may feel like they're softening blows to the head, but they're actually offering no protection.

"The evidence is that the current head gear is not preventing concussion and the testing we've done indicates that the current headgear range is arguably worse than the early 2000s."

The AFL is quickly becoming a global leader in its stance on concussion, with Harcourt recently returning from Dublin, where he and Operations and Innovations boss Patrick Clifton represented the league at a concussion summit.

The event was attended by leading sport organisations, including the National Football League and National Hockey League from North America, and World Rugby.

Harcourt said the most difficult issue surrounding concussion was that there was so much we didn't know.

"Concussion itself is not a pathology, it's a clinical syndrome," he said.

Concussion has been a hot topic in the AFL in the past 18 months, with Brayshaw, St Kilda young gun Paddy McCartin and Richmond big man Ben Griffiths constantly linked with head trauma.

Adelaide star Rory Sloane raised eyebrows when he returned to the field a week after a horrible incident against Melbourne in Darwin in round 17 when he walked around visibly dazed and confused.

But Harcourt said the AFL didn't need hard-and-fast rules for concussion recovery.

"We've actually got a diagnostic threshold that's quite low at the moment," he said.

"We're probably too conservative, which is a funny way of putting it, but we've got a very low threshold for diagnosing. It probably means we over-diagnose it in acute situations.

"There is no protocol that's going to work for everyone because everyone is different, that's the problem.

"The only time where you might have a protocol and a mandatory stand-down period is when you don't have good quality medical staff around the athletes.

"One of the beauties of the AFL competition is that we've got really good-quality medical personnel in each of the teams. It's one of the blessings of the AFL and it's probably unique in the world with the quality of the health care sitting on the sidelines."

Harcourt said the summit provided some clarity but also posed more questions, with different sports reporting various kinds of head trauma.

He said that variability made understanding and analysing concussion even more difficult. "Subtle things like the codes seem to have different experiences with concussion, meaning they're presenting differently in the different codes and we don't know why," he said.

Harcourt said the league was looking into an AFL-specific helmet due to the dynamic nature of the sport.

"The AFL is quite unusual because it's not like the NFL, where you've got just two people going up against each other, or the NRL, where you've got mainly front-on clashes.

"In the AFL, you can get it from high marking, you can get it from tackles, you can get it from a knock, it can happen in multiple different ways. So it's quite difficult to come up with a helmet that's going to provide protection that our game needs, but it is on our agenda.

"If you feel more comfortable wearing a helmet, wear a helmet, as with [Angus] Brayshaw.

"It comes down to how people who govern the game interpret and implement that, bearing in mind that you're never ever going to get 100 per cent protection, because accidents are going to happen."

Despite the small amount known about concussion globally, the AFL is making significant inroads in its analysis, with all data to be digitalised as of next season.

The transfer of data from paper to digital will allow medical officials to track individual players and their recovery more accurately.

"Ten per cent of our concussions are delayed onset, so they come on within 24-48 hours [after the event]," Harcourt said.

"On the day, nothing is noted but then symptoms and signs develop. That's when the data becomes valuable because what that immediately tells you is, you've got to have tools that assess concussion over a 24-72 hour period."

This story Protecting the head: AFL to trial new helmets first appeared on The Age.