AT THE START of 2022, I became the host of The Players Voice, a podcast for the Gaelic Players Association, in collaboration with Real Talks. The series celebrates leading inter-county figures and discusses the challenges of mental health, sport/life balance, injuries, addiction, career advancement, concussion and more.
A recent episode with Donegal’s Kate Keaney, who left Ireland earlier this year to work as a sports scientist with the U.S international soccer teams, in particular has left a lasting impact.
She spoke so powerfully about the impact of concussion that I felt compelled to highlight the conversation in written form for coaches, parents and athletes.
Concussion not only impacts a person’s ability to compete in sport but it can also stop people from living authentically for lengthy periods. I know this to be true because I have dealt with the wrath of concussion in recent years too.
The first concussion
The incident that caused Kate’s concussion, like many others, seemed innocuous at first. It was a bang that in her own words, ‘wasn’t that hard,’ and she didn’t lose consciousness. Then, as she sat in the college library, the whole side of her face went numb and she felt completely ‘out of it’.
A trip to the accident and emergency department via the doctor brought no real answers. She was dispatched with painkillers after a long wait and told to rest. However, symptoms like headaches and shortened concentration span lingered on.
My story was similar but different. A ball crashed full force into my face from a shot that left my head spinning. My eyes watered and my nose bled, and as I tried to play on my balance and hand to eye coordination deteriorated.
I felt like I was walking on a tightrope and trying not to fall as I took a kick-out. The night after that ball struck my face, I was standing on a stage giving a presentation in the Crover House Hotel.
It took time for O'Mara to fully recover. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO
I felt disoriented and my headache worsened as soon as I started to speak. I drove home in a blur that night, worried that the headlights of the oncoming cars might trigger more issues. Kate and I had no idea that our problems were only just beginning.
Rest wasn’t the solution it was made out to be. Kate eventually saw the Donegal men’s team doctor who ran a couple of tests. He said her balance was akin to someone who had drank 10 pints of Guinness and recommended a full detox from exercise and screen time.
She spent more hours than she cares to remember on her back staring at the ceiling. As more days passed by, she worried that she wasn’t getting better. Unable to focus enough to complete study or course work, she dropped out of the University of Limerick and moved home with no job or income.Advertisement
It was lonely and isolating. One night, she cried because she couldn’t get to sleep. “I knew I was a shell of myself…. I hated not being able to be me,” she said on The Players Voice.
Listening to Kate reminded me of the pain and struggles concussion also caused in my life. The concussion impacted me in other ways too, like excess sweating, inability to focus, reduced patience, low mood and light headed sensations.
I napped a lot: sometimes for hours at a time in the middle of the day. When I exerted too much physically or mentally, my stomach would just ‘flip’ – a polite way of describing having to run to the toilet as fast as I could.
It was an invisible injury full of worry that brought feelings of shame, guilt and anger for both of us.
It didn’t help when the question asked most often by teammates and coaches was ‘how long will you be out for?’ rather than ‘how are you feeling?’
In my book, ‘The Best is Yet to Come,’ I wrote extensively about experiencing depression – and the similarity of the symptoms caused by my concussion shocked me at times.
Kate Keaney at an AFL camp. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO
Kate and I cleared return to play protocols but despite all we learned, we both tried to play on through a subsequent concussion further down the line. Kate was competing in a club championship match when it happened again.
Having no sports doctor or qualified professional on site is common at club level, so even though she suspected it straight away after getting a ‘clatter,’ Kate didn’t leave the field.
As soon as the adrenaline relaxed post-game, she immediately regretted the decision and spent most of the next two days asleep dealing with the repercussions. Asked on the Players Voice podcast why she continued on that day, she said: “We were playing our arch rivals…I was afraid I was going to let the team down. Afterwards I was really, really annoyed with myself.”
One of the biggest lessons from the conversation with Kate is that the decision to play on after a suspected concussion should never be left to the athlete.
A year after my first concussion, I accidentally clashed with a teammate in a warm-up drill. I felt it immediately but it was my first training back with my home club after a year in America and my ego and pride kicked in. Like Kate, logic was absent from my decision-making process in the heat of the action.
A few weeks later, I was still feeling the impact of the hit, unable to train and barely able to operate my performance and wellbeing consultancy.
In need of an outlet during the pandemic, I went to play golf. I felt the tension build up in my head after a few holes and then my stomach flipped so fast that I had to run into the trees and drop my pants to avoid soiling myself. It scared me so much that it made me stop waiting for this second concussion to fix itself and get expert advice.SEE SPORTDIFFERENTLY
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The path to recovery
Kate and I both ended up at the Sports Surgery Clinic in Santry for help at different points of our journey and the Concussion Clinic there had a transformative impact on both our recoveries.
Feeling heard and understood by industry experts was a game-changer and helped remove much of the internal stigma the injury created. We learned that concussions usually heal with time but there is no quick-fix.
Self-awareness combined with journaling were crucial to quantifying our capacity for high cognitive thinking/talking, work, phone time, screen time, exercise and other triggers.
Taking adequate breaks and down time become more important than ever. The Santry team determined a temporary exercise threshold by monitoring heart rate when on a treadmill.
For context, I wasn’t able to do more than a walk before my symptoms worsened. We were told not to be afraid of exercise but not to push too hard. The challenge was to work smarter and more efficiently with reduced brain capacity to grow the baseline incrementally.
It is so important that non medical people involved in sport know that concussion is a brain injury, and that athletes don’t need to be knocked out to be concussed. Talking to Kate reminded me how beneficial peer to peer discussion among athletes can be.
Players need to talk to each other about concussion more to raise awareness, understanding and empathy. No matter how important a game is; coaches, parents, teammates, doctors and physios should always err on the side of caution and take the decision out of the players’ hands.
Kate returned to play for Donegal and is once again a high performer in sport and life. Her work as a sports scientist has taken her to some of the most elite teams around the world and now to the USA’s international soccer squads.
I haven’t played a match since my second concussion and I never will. I prioritized Real Talks, my performance and wellbeing consultancy, coaching and my wellbeing over my desire to be a goalkeeper again. Another concussion simply isn’t worth the risk for me anymore.
No win, save, tackle, shot or goal is worth damaging a brain for. We all only get one brain. Please mind yours.
*Alan O’Mara is a performance and wellbeing consultant with Real Talks, host of the Players Voice podcast, former Cavan GAA goalkeeper, the author of ‘The Best Is Yet To Come’.
**The Gaelic Players Association have teamed up with UPMC, the Official Healthcare Partner of the GPA and GAA, to introduce a Concussion Baseline Testing and Treatment pilot programme. The initiative gives inter-county players access to UPMC’s National Concussion network and more specialised treatment.