Last November, I had the chance to attend the eleventh annual PrimeTime Sports Management conference in Toronto, where hundreds of ambitious sports minds gathered to learn from and share with each other their experiences working in sports. Among those in attendance were the Co-Founders of Headsup, a Canadian organization started by two Sport Management students from Brock University, both of whom shared one similarity: each of them had suffered a sports-related concussion during their respective playing careers. They decided to use their experience to pour their passion into something bigger than themselves, creating a platform for concussion education and research.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Headsup Co-Founders Ryan Sutton and Seth Mendelsohn, learning all there is to know about the organization changing the way Canadians view and treat concussions.
The Headsup team attributes their conception to an idea Sutton had after suffering a severe concussion back in 2016. Like so many others his age, he felt first-hand the effects that traumatic brain injuries can have on people’s everyday lives. Sutton, CEO of the company, and Mendelsohn, COO of the company, came together to create a platform for educating people across Canada on the issue. When asked how they came to realize their current platform was the right one, Mendelsohn said:
“There are a few different reasons for this. I think the idea of starting a brand was appealing to us because we thought we could easily connect with people our age at universities and colleges. Plus, we realized how there wasn’t a brand currently dedicated to giving back to concussion research even though it is such a huge problem in our society. We like to say that, by buying our merchandise, you are simultaneously contributing to concussion research fundraising, along with helping to spread awareness by wearing the shirt. We also knew that with our Sport Management background we aren’t necessarily men of science, so we didn’t have anything to offer in terms of new technology or educational resources. So, we decided to become an ‘awareness first’ brand, and establish a platform for people to connect with.”
The main goal at Headsup is to provide awareness, education, and fundraising for concussion research. Such a broad, ambitious goal can be hard to accomplish, especially when trying to plant your roots with the local community.
“[We] provide awareness through multiple outlets,” said the Co-Founders of Headsup. “We started by just having a table setup at Brock University; that grew into us establishing a presence on social media, and most recently launching our YouTube campaign to share people’s ‘Concussion Testimonials.'”
The ‘Concussion Testimonials’ are a part of Headsup’s strategy of allowing everyday athletes to share stories of their personal experiences with concussions. They display these videos on their website, and across all social media platforms, including Youtube.
In addition to the testimonials, they created a Brand Ambassador Program, which originated at Brock University.
“We created this program to become the first point of contact with students across the country in the hopes of educating them on concussions,” they said of their Brand Ambassador Program. “With our success at Brock we began to spread our movement to other universities across Canada through our brand ambassador program.”
The “other universities” they mentioned are Wilfred Laurier University, St. Francis Xavier University, and Trent University. Their biggest accomplishment with the program to date is the constant discussion they generate with millennials on such a serious topic:
“When we started at Brock, there were a lot of students who were unaware of concussions, and believed that it was an injury that only occurs in sports, when, in fact, 70% of incidents are non-sports related. Concussions can happen to anyone– doing anything– and we use our BA Program to ensure that if they feel any symptoms (migraines, nausea, dizziness, etc.), they immediately get it checked out and take the proper steps.”
Many university students who are ambassadors for Headsup have, perhaps unsurprisingly, experienced a concussion themselves. This ambassadorship is a unique and personal one, as students use their own stories to shed light on the matter.
“This creates a really awesome conversation for other people,” said Headsup. “They get a deeper understanding of the injury rather than what they hear in the news or in the headlines.”
The ambassador program is one of the main ways Headsup aims to educate people, as it facilitates face-to-face interactions. In addition to their educational presence, though, Headsup also spreads awareness in concrete ways, getting out into the world and becoming part of the community.
One of the biggest ways Headsup makes a measurable impact is through fundraising. Headsup fundraises money in a few different ways to be donated to their choice donation partner, the Canadian Concussion Centre. They collect donations on their website and at their booth setups, 15% of which goes straight to concussion research.
They’ve also recently began hosting fundraiser events, such as the Headsup Charity Concert, which took place recently, raising $1200 to donate to the Canadian Concussion Centre, or CCC.
In the early stages of founding Headsup, Sutton and Mendelsohn wanted a surefire way to garner serious recognition of their foundation and get people to buy in to their mission. They figured that the best way of doing that was to seek the right charity to donate their proceeds to.
“Initially, we sought out Parachute Canada, which is the leading organization for injury prevention in the country. Although they did have a concussion program, we wanted a charity whose sole purpose was devoted to concussion research and finding innovative ways to help the recovery process, which led us to the CCC. When we reached out to them with our idea, they were over the moon about it. In a matter of weeks, we got to meet Order of Canada recipient Dr. Charles Tator.”
Coincidentally, Dr. Charles Tator was one of the Co-Founders of Parachute Canada, the first charity option explored by the Headsup team. Wanting to pursue a stronger focus on traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), however, Dr. Tator eventually ended up founding the CCC.
The CCC has conducted recent studies linking one’s genetics and their inherent proneness to concussions, research Headsup credited as a main driver in their affiliation.
“It was groundbreaking research like this that made us realize immediately we wanted to align with them,” said the Co-Founders. “After that meeting [with Dr. Tator], we realized that what we were doing with Headsup could really make a difference.”
The slogan of the CCC is “Research, Diagnosis, and Solutions.” This directly coincides with the platform Headsup aims to provide across Canada. It’s a match made in heaven, and it’s safe to say it’s benefitting both sides of the partnership.
One major hurdle in treating concussions, however, is the current status of what the CCC is working toward: research, diagnosis, and solutions, with the hurdle being the lack of widespread understanding of all three of those facets.
Sutton and Mendelsohn consistently use the term “diagnosed concussion” rather than concussion, because each one of them have suffered concussions while playing sports growing up. When asked why they choose to replace the widely used generalization “concussion” with the more specific “diagnosed concussion”, they said:
“We use that term because 50% of all concussions go undiagnosed. We believe that this stat can be reduced with more awareness and education on the injury, and it is essentially the driver as to why we do what we do. In recent years, there has been an increase in awareness of the injury– the results can be seen at the provincial government level, in the policy enacted on March 7th, 2018, that standardized and revamped concussion policy and protocol in Ontario schools. The fact that it took such a tragedy like Rowan Stringer’s to enact change is not right. Now, we are hoping to do our part to make sure that people understand the severity of concussions, and the risks associated if not treated properly.”
The policy of reference enacted at the provincial government level is, of course, Rowan’s Law. The law’s namesake, Rowan Stringer, was just 17 years old and in Grade 12 (Senior) when she passed away following a concussion she received during a rugby match for her high school team. A Coroner’s Inquest held in May of 2015 determined her cause of death as Second Impact Syndrome, concluding she had also likely suffered a pair of concussions in the period of five days leading up to the match where she suffered the fatal brain injury.
Stringer’s death, coupled with the findings of the Inquest, inspired her family to campaign for Rowan’s Law. This law aims to govern the management of youth concussions in all sports, making Ontario the first Canadian province to have such a law in place. All 50 U.S. states already have laws in place governing the management of youth concussions.
Government action is critical in the management of youth concussions. I had the chance to share with Headsup some of my personal experiences with concussions I suffered during my time in youth sports, and how it was managed by my youth hockey association.
I sustained several concussions during my youth hockey career, and stopped playing at the age of 18. I played in California, under the governing body of the California Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA). There was a rule in place that, once a player reported three concussions, they would no longer be allowed to play. Not only did this deter me from reporting any of the concussions I knew I had, it encouraged me to be dishonest with nearly everyone I should have felt comfortable to be honest with: my team, coaches, league, friends, and family.
If children participating in youth sports are afraid to report concussions, then how can we expect to make any progress in treating them?
“That is the worst concussion policy [we] have ever heard of, quite honestly. That deters people from reporting a concussion, and institutionalizes the idea that you should be hiding your brain injury because if you report it, you risk the sport you love being taken away. Additionally, there is no ‘magic number’ of concussions that would deem you unable to play contact sports again. The more you receive, the worse they get, but if you receive one or two really bad concussions, you should be evaluating your future in contact sports anyway.”
Youth sport participants in all sports across both Canada and the United States should feel comfortable to make their health a priority. The first step is making sure that youth sport organizations and governing bodies create a safe environment in which they feel like they can do so.
“The best way to encourage players to come forward with concussion symptoms would be to create an organizational culture that cares about their players’ brains. They must realize that every concussion is different, and therefore, should be treated differently. So, the best way would be to provide players with an education on concussions at a young age, making sure they understand the long-lasting symptoms and results of the injury. Having an accountability framework that ensures the coaches, parents, and organization all know how to recognize the injury and take necessary precautions to ensure the children have adequate recovery time that makes sense to their own timelines, and not an institutional guideline. Unfortunately, there is no blanket solution to solve this issue.”
An accountability framework on the parts of the leagues is crucial to creating and fostering a culture wherein concussions are understood, properly diagnosed, and properly treated. Professional, intercollegiate, and amateur sports leagues must lead the charge in spreading awareness about concussions, and their efforts to date have fallen short.
Professional sports leagues and organizations in Canada and in the United States that constantly deal with and feel the effects of concussions, such as the NHL, the NFL and CFL, and the NCAA and U Sports, are among some of the more powerful entities that can change concussion culture.
“We would like to see professional, intercollegiate, and amateur athletics change the culture around concussions. Change in culture starts from policy change, which we are starting to see at all levels now. But, with policy change, the need to ensure it is actually being enforced is key. Athletes are still unable to recognize a concussion, and can be apprehensive in admitting to having one due to the current stigma around the injury. Changing the way the injury is perceived is the key to changing the culture.”
Headsup, and others fighting to spread awareness of TBI research and treatment, hope to spur a change of perception, starting at the top levels of governing organizations. They hope that, as more information arises from policy and educational resources, this change of perception will start to take effect.
“It is organizational leaders’ responsibilities to transfer that knowledge throughout the rest of the organization,” said Headsup, “and effectively create a new culture on how the injury needs to be perceived in order to ensure proper safety measures are put in place.”
The reason for the emphasis Headsup places on fostering a nurturing culture for people suffering from TBIs and concussion symptoms becomes apparent through their Concussion Testimonials.
“Every concussion is different, and every person who experiences a concussion undergoes different symptoms. Unfortunately, there is a direct link between concussions and mental health, and, often times, people go through depression and emotional instability, wherein even their closest friends can’t recognize them.”
“One of the toughest things about the Concussion Testimonials,” said the Co-Founders of Headsup, “is listening to stories of concussions ruining peoples’ lives, when a lot of it could’ve been avoided if someone around them were more educated.”
“Even people we have met at our booths, who have been brave enough to share their story, explain how they wake up every day, and don’t know if they’re going to have a good day or a bad day, because there are so many triggers that might change their demeanor or cause intense migraines. To paint you a picture, there is a book called ‘Game Change’ by Ken Dryden that looks into the story of ex-NHL player Steve Montador.”
Steve Montador was an NHL defenseman who played 10 seasons between six different teams, earning his spot on the roster for his physical play and tough demeanor, never afraid to get in a scrap. Montador died in 2015 at the age of 35, and was found to have the neurodegenerative disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, commonly linked with concussions.
“Steve was beloved by his family, friends, and teammates, but had suffered well-documented concussions throughout his career. Always known for being upbeat, positive, and adventurous, the numerous concussions he encountered eventually took their toll on him, and he began locking himself in the basement, resorting to outside drugs for relief. Sadly, he lost his life at a very young age, but, his story speaks volumes on the devastation that comes from TBIs.”
Montador is just one name in a recent stream of tragically deceased players and retired players alike who have created a platform for those affected by TBIs to share their experiences and help end the stigma around the injury, all in hopes of prompting research and awareness.
This is the exact reason for the existence of Headsup.
I asked Sutton and Mendelsohn what the most important piece of information about concussions people need to be educated on is, to which they said, “Once you receive a concussion, your brain is altered forever.”
“[Your brain] will never be back to where it was before. But, in order to recover as much as possible, you need to take the proper time to recover. The simple use of aspirin to relieve migraines does not cut it. You must get it checked out and take an adequate amount of time to rest– even if that means missing a championship game that your team is counting on you to play in. At the end of the day, your health is more important than sport.”
“Our focus is to gear our efforts to youth sports to ensure they understand the significance of the recovery process,” said Headsup, “and to not be afraid to speak up about the symptoms they may be dealing with.”
As someone who has shied from revealing the lows of my own concussion symptoms and its effects to date, I, myself, can attest to the need for deeper understanding of the seriousness of the injury. So can Ryan Sutton and Seth Mendelsohn. So can millions of others.
In 2019 and beyond, Headsup hopes to build off the significant progress they have made to date. In addition to their current Brand Ambassador universities in Canada, they aim to expand their reach to some of the largest universities across the country, including McMaster University, University of Guelph, and Western University.
“We are constantly looking for ways to integrate our brand and our cause to larger demographics,” said the Co-Founders.
“Completing our mission will happen when everyone in the world knows how to recognize a concussion, and is not afraid to speak up about it. Until that happens, we will continue to grow in every way possible, to ensure that one day, that can be the reality.”
Ensuring every person across the globe is able to recognize a concussion and properly diagnose and treat it is a daunting task, but one that these young, ambitious men are ready to face. They have already planted their roots in Canada, and are growing faster than they could have imagined. With time, patience, and perseverance, one day, their vision might become reality.
To learn more about Headsup, visit their site at https://www.headsupcan.ca/. To keep up with the organization, follow Headsup on social media, on Facebook (HeadsupCan), on Instagram and Twitter (@headsupcan), and on Youtube (Headsupcan.tv).
- Rowan Stringer image from The Globe and Mail Inc. [CA]
- Steve Montador image from The Boston Globe
All other images courtesy of Headsup.