Caught on camera: University of Windsor researchers want to know 'what’s happening with kids’ heads'

Mar 22, 2024

Dave Andrews, Kinesiology Professor at the University of Windsor

The H.I.R.T. (Head Impact Research Team) videotaped 21 minor hockey games in Belle River looking for head impacts to young athletes.

“Most of the work that's been done so far has been done on older athletes and using techniques that are really expensive to outfit a whole team if you wanted to follow what’s happening with their heads during a game,” says Dave Andrews, a Human Kinetics professor and researcher at the University of Windsor.

His class of graduate students form HIRT and with the help of a grant from WE-Spark Health Institute, they created a “novel multi-camera method” to learn about “conspicuous head impacts.”

“Those aren't necessarily concussive hits,” says Masters student Emily Roberts. “It's just anytime that head is having a direct contact with something else.”

Roberts says most impacts are from checking because they videotaped three teams in the U15 and U16 divisions, where body contact is allowed.

She also saw plenty of other minor head impacts from players tripping on the ice, or digging for a puck in the boards or even two players colliding accidentally.

HIRT mounted seven mini cameras around the main bowl at the Atlas Tube Center; chosen in part because of its high quality lighting says Andrews.

“We make sure that there's enough cameras to cover every corner of the rink with at least two cameras,” he says.

Roberts then watches the two ‘birds-eye’ view cameras.

Once she spots any kind of head impact, she goes to one of the other angles for a closer look.

“We're not only interested in the impacts, per se, but we're also interested in what the players are doing prior to impact,” says Andrews.

Roberts still has two games to watch, assess and document but she already admits the early statistics are surprising her.

“On the ice, in one game, between two teams, there's about 30 (head) impacts,” says Roberts. “But that can vary. I think the lowest we had was like 15 to 18 (head impacts) but it went over 50 depending on the team.”

Roberts and Andrews both note these ‘head impact’ aren’t the same as head injuries or concussions.

Each one however, according to the researchers, might have a cumulative impact on that players brain, over time.

The first step they say is knowing how big the problem is and knowing how to properly capture the head impacts, before they can focus on the severity of each impact.

That, according to Andrews, will be the focus of HIRT’s next research project, he hopes.

“The cumulative effect of their involvement in sport, I think can be significant,” says Andrews. “But we don't have the data to really, really comment on that yet. We need to gather it broadly and see what we're looking at.”

And, Andrews and Roberts would like to study younger minor hockey players and research womens’ hockey leagues as well, where body contact is not allowed but the women compete at a very high level.

Early research on concussions has already indicated when a player knows an impact might be coming, the injury to their brain is less serious.

“So we want to look at, you know, in a big, big scale across the season with fairly young players does anticipation change what they're doing prior to impact?” Andrews notes.

When Roberts finishes looking at all the videos, she’ll write her thesis which will form a report HIRT gives to their partners; the Belle River Minor Hockey Association and the Brain Injury Association of Windsor.

Andrews and Roberts hope the thesis will help both agencies on how to train coaches and athletes to better protect their head.

“And ideally,” Roberts adds “if this gets carried on it can go to safety manufacturers and things where you can get better helmet design to better protect against certain types of instances.”