A Penny for Your Thoughts: Boxing and Head Trauma Part 1

I relaxed as I let my punches flow from my legs and hips. I was known for always being yelled at for being too tense, but today it was easy to relax as my regular sparring partner couldn’t seem to even get one punch in. Until she did. Just one straight punch, perfectly timed and cleanly landed with all of her weight behind it. I had relaxed my neck so much that my head went flying backwards violently. We continued, but at that point I was mainly just trying to finish the round off. As I was sitting on the bench afterwards, I asked my head coach if it was okay for me to just sit here and stay for another hour because I was pretty sure I had a concussion and I didn’t want to just drive home and fall asleep—just me and my kids and no one that would even know to check for me since I worked alone and on my own schedule. He looked at me oddly and just said that I was fine and to go home. So I loaded up my kids, and as I got into the driver’s seat the entire left side of my body went numb. We sat there (not so patiently on the part of my kids, who could blame them?) for over an hour. I couldn’t even think clearly enough to decided if I needed to call an ambulance. I drive a stick, so even trying to drive with just one side of my body functional was definitely not a choice.

The next day at practice, I asked my coach what the hell happened to me. He said it was probably a “stinger”. He calmly told me that since feeling came back I probably wouldn’t need neck surgery but he bet I learned my lesson not to relax my neck anymore. I went to a chiropractor where she told me that I had very bad alignment problems from taking so many blows, and that in about 6 weeks she could get me back in place, but I’d be extremely limited in what I could do during that time. I chose to go her route and was extremely grateful that my dad paid for her for me out of both his love for me and wishes for me to be successful, as well as his own fears of what I’d done to my body. I, like every other boxer I knew, definitely didn’t have any background knowledge of medical stuff, and definitely had no insurance. So when my coach told me what was fine and not fine I just did it.

Here’s the big problem with that theory though. My coach had no idea what he was talking about other than personal experience. If you ask most boxers and coaches what a concussion looks like, they may be able to briefly give you a few possible symptoms, but not very many. In general, most also seem to believe that if you just don’t spar hard for a few days, maybe a week or two tops, your concussion will be healed and fine. That is not even close to what’s true. But how would we know any differently?

Boxing is a sport that comes out of hardship. That’s something that most of us acknowledge. Not necessarily poverty. There are lots of us where poverty wasn’t necessarily the thing that developed the deep fight in us. However, for a lot of us, it was. So the level of education access available to most boxing coaches isn’t the same as what it takes to be, say, a college football or basketball coach. I don’t think this is a bad thing. I want that to be clear from the beginning of this series. If there were more regulations on how much education coaches had to have to do their job, that would knock a whole lot of great coaches out of being able to do what they do. They’re out there fighting for these kids, young men, and in my case, women, and loving on them with everything they’ve got, and helping them to victory in life experiences outside of the ring that most people who have easy access to higher education simply don’t understand. It would also mean that we’d have to pay them a decent salary. Now, that’s a topic for a whole other blog. And I do believe our coaches are saints for volunteering every single day and night, sacrificing everything to make sure we’re ready. But…if we paid every coach a livable salary, that would also mean that gyms would cost far, far more money—therefore making them inaccessible to most people who end up being fighters, which is something that I don’t think most of us coaches would want. Being paid? Heck yes. But having to turn down all of those people that could really use our love and help the most in their lives? No. That would take away all the reasons that, at the end of the day, we love our job so much that we’re willing to do it for free.

And that’s where the higher ups come in. Management, promotion, gambling and casinos—there’s a lot of money to be made on fighters. That is, if you’re anyone involved in the sport besides the coach or the fighter. Fighters and coaches love their jobs so much that they’re willing to do it for free. This means that we’re often out here risking almost everything daily, working multiple jobs to try to provide for our families, and making pennies. (Hint: that’s where the title came from, “A penny for your thoughts”) Most of us definitely do not have access to health insurance—and even if we did, the co-pays and deductibles would be too much. When you’re talking about a sport that uses your own body as the only weapon, where our joints receive the same impact back that we’re able to throw to their face/body, where weight cuts have us looking like (and sometimes risking) death, not having access to medical care or people with a higher education that would be required for medical knowledge makes a very big difference to our safety.

Do I believe that local fighters should be paid more? Yes. Absolutely. I believe that if we got rid of a system that uses up and spits out fighters for entertainment, often preying on those who desperately need to take a fight for $600 (far less after everyone takes their cuts) even though they know they’ll probably be taking the loss, that we would have a huge decrease in risk and injury levels in our sport. I also believe that it’s completely unnecessary for that system to be set up the way it is. There is plenty of money the higher up the chain that you go, it simply gets caught up there and never makes it’s way down to the fighters themselves. And if you look at who’s up there are the top of those chains, you’ll also notice that it’s like a mirror of our society in this country with certain races and sexes receiving most of the money while other certain races and sexes tend to be the ones putting in the daily grind of 14 hour work days on top of training and risk to their bodies--again, another topic for another blog series. The point is, we’re often at unnecessary risk in what we do. As someone who was fortunate enough to receive her masters in coaching, I don’t want that knowledge to stay simply within our team. The more fighters who can get help and suffer less, the better. The more coaches who can understand the significance of the extreme things we do to our bodies—therefore helping to guard against permanent damage—the better.

Although in this piece we mostly introduced the understanding that this need exists (something I really didn’t understand until I was several classes into my masters’ program), I do have some action you guys can take this week. There is free online training for concussions. https://headsup.cdc.gov Go to this link. Start a quick training session about concussions in youth. Although this training pertains to youth specifically, please apply the knowledge to your adults as well. This is completely free and honestly doesn’t even take long to do. At the end they provide you with pre-made fliers that you can easily customize with your gym name. We have these in easy access at our gym, and the second that someone starts with us I give them one of them and tell them to take it home to their parent or spouse. When it comes to concussions, it’s really important that more people than just the fighter themselves are on the lookout for symptoms regularly. A concussion can happen from some of the most unlikely punches depending on the location of the landing, how dehydrated the fighter is, how the hand lands, how relaxed the body was, etc. A concussion is a bruise on the brain, so depending on where the bruise happens, it can have a huge variety of symptoms. The high risk isn’t necessarily in getting a concussion. The biggest risk comes in when one goes unnoticed. Once you get a concussion, your body becomes much more susceptible to the next one. Getting a concussion on top of a concussion can cause permanent brain damage and even death. As a fighter, in order to do what we do, we have to be able to put the risks off in a special box in the backs of our minds and not regularly think about them. I understand that. However, with a few easy steps we could quickly lower the dangers drastically.

  1. Coaches (and fighters who read this blog as well!) taking free, quick training like the one listed above

  2. Having easy access to the information posted in the gym, and handed out when a new fighter begins, and again discussing the dangers with a fighter BEFORE their first time deciding that they want to spar.

  3. After every practice, take quick inventory of yourself. The day after sparring I’d start my day with a light jog and a few body weight exercises, just taking quiet and careful consideration of exactly how my body felt before I’d dive in hardcore for the day. I’d start at my toes and work my way up my body making myself extremely conscious of each individual muscle and body part and exactly how it felt. For fighters, who often push all feeling out of our minds, this is an important task to do from time to time.

  4. Coaches, after sparing days I have my fighters do some work when we’re done. It doesn’t have to be hard work. I review video with each one we filmed while they rotate on the bags. While that’s my method, we don’t have 80 fighters, so we can do that. You do you. The most important thing is that it gives symptoms a chance to show up before they leave my care for the night.

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