The future of safety in youth sports was on display at Greenhill School in Addison, Texas.
Two nationally ranked youth soccer teams — Solar Chelsea ECNL and Solar Chelsea Red — faced-off in a friendly match on a brisk night in late January. Normally, this would have been a typical practice, however, this game had something different: All of the participants were wearing Gamebreaker headgear.
Safety has been a hot-topic in the sporting world recently. The number of injuries — specifically to the head and face area — have been on the rise over the past decade. In youth sports, those numbers are growing at an alarming rate. In 2014-2015, the most common injury to high school girls soccer players was a head/face or concussion injury. According to a study done by Dr. R. Dawn Comstock, PhD. and the Colorado School of Public Health, 36.2 percent of injuries tracked fell in that category for women's soccer.
This match was a glimpse at what could be coming to youth sports.
The Gamebreaker helmet is designed to protect the entire head from multiple types of trauma.
"Our motto has always been 'Protect the athlete. Protect the game,'" said Gamebreaker CEO Mike Juels. "If we don't then outside parties get involved and start changing the game. You see that today with soccer. There are lawsuits and knee jerk reactions that cause people to monkey with the rules of the game."
One rule change that has been proposed is the banning of headers — the action of hitting the soccer ball with your head in the air — until players hit a certain age.
"That's not what we're about at Gamebreaker," Juels added." If we can protect the player and understand that epidemiology of injuries, then ultimately soccer can keep managing soccer, keeping the game as pure as it has always been."
Juels gave a demonstration at halftime of the match, which provided parents an opportunity to learn more about the technology that goes into making a Gamebreaker helmet.
"I really didn't know much about the technology in those [helmets]," said Frisco Storm U11 coach Jeff Cain. "As a coach, we're always concerned with safety, but the development of our players is important too. If we have the opportunity to provide a safe way to continue growth and development in that area of the game, it would certainly be our first choice."
Cain's U11 girls were in attendance, along with many of the parents of the Solar Chelsea squads that took the field.
Leslie, who's daughter plays for the '03 Solar Chelsea Red team, thinks the push toward mandated helmets in soccer is a good thing.
"I hope it eventually becomes part of the uniform," she said. "I have a daughter who loves to head the ball. She heads the ball at least a couple times a game. I think every little bit helps and I'm all for her being more safe."
Another parent, Jeff, who's daughter plays goalkeeper for Solar Chelsea ECNL, has had experience with head injuries and soccer before.
"I actually have an older daughter who's had a couple of concussions playing soccer," he said. "I learned that there were two different types of concussions — a fast impact and a slow impact — and my daughter had one of each. I found it interesting that there is a product that meets both of those needs. It's impressive and very useful."
The Gambreaker helmet is designed with patented D3O technology that allows the molecules in the headgear to absorb the greatest amount of energy transmitted to the head. The newest design covers the entire head, while leaving the face clear and leaving a spot for ponytails.
One concern that parents voiced during the game was whether the helmet was restricting the vision of the players in close quarters.
The players, however, answered the concern.
"It didn't block my vision at all," said center midfielder Madi Moss. "I really liked it. I didn't even notice the helmet at all and I loved the way it felt when I headed the ball."
"Once the game started, I completely forgot about it," said defensive midfielder Sophia Claros. "Then again, I usually forget everything except for soccer once I start playing."
A vast majority of the players interviews after the game claimed that they hardly noticed the helmet during the action. Center back for Solar Chelsea ECNL Kionna Simon was hesitant about the helmet at first, but like the others, that hesitation melted away.
"At first it was a little uncomfortable because of the chinstrap," she said. "After a few minutes, though, I couldn't even feel it."
The design of the helmet allows for young athletes to wear ponytails if they'd like.
Another question raised by parents, and a few players, was the "look" of the headgear. Solar Chelsea Red center forward Macy Blackburn summed up the perspective perfectly.
"The first time I wore it in practice, I though it was the craziest thing ever," she said. "But then I got used to it, and tonight I didn't even think about it. Usually I'm a little afraid to head the ball, but I was a lot more confident with it [the helmet] on. Heading the ball when it's 30 degrees feels like an icicle slamming into your forehead. The helmets helped a ton. And they kept my head warm!"
For Solar Chelsea ECNL Taylor Dellasso, it was the first time she experienced the Gamebreaker helmet.
"It was different," she said about the look of the headgear. "It's the first time, so I'll get used to it. When I bumped heads with another girl, the helmet definitely worked. I couldn't feel anything."
It wasn't just heading the ball that was affected positively in the players' eyes. Center back EmJ Cox for Solar Chelsea Red felt more confident being physical during the game.
"If you have gotten a head injury before, the helmets will help you a lot. You feel like you are more safe from getting hit in the head from an elbow or falling to the ground."
With the spotlight of injuries in sports growing brighter every day, don't be surprised if more youth sports leagues start to require protective headgear for its athletes. PrimeTime Sports 7on7, Nike The Opening, Pylon and many others are mandating that players wear the Gamebreaker soft-shell helmets in order to participate.
"PrimeTime Sports has the privilege of running over 170 youth sporting events a year across the country," said PrimeTime CEO David Stephens. "Along with that comes a responsibility to all our athletes to help them develop as players and as people, while being protected when they compete."
Injuries aren't going to disappear. The real question is: What are we doing to make youth sports as safe as possible, while not hindering the development of the players' skill sets? For PrimeTime and Gamebreaker, the soft-shell helmet is the answer.
For a photo gallery of the event, visit the PrimeTime Sports Facebook page.