Female Athletes Head for Trouble

Melissa reads studies showing female athletes suffer more symptoms and recover more slowly than males. But nobody can scientifically explain to her why girls' and boys' experiences are different.

There are theories, though. In addition to receiving different levels of education about concussions, women and men have different hormones protecting their brains and different levels of neck strength. They also have different styles of play, and none of the return-to-play guidelines used by teams to evaluate injured athletes take gender into account. Research shows that doctors and trainers don't conduct follow-up exams with female athletes as quickly as they do with males, either. Adding to the confusion, young women frequently get menstrual headaches -- migraines, even -- as hormones flood their changing bodies, making it all too easy to dismiss concussion symptoms.

Melissa graduates in 1999, still yearning to get back on the field. At one point she charges into Brooks' office waving a contract from a local semipro club, shouting, "I know you're going to clear me." But she also knows by now that the only way to recover from a concussion is complete rest, both physical and mental. And after her hours with Brooks, Melissa has discovered that although she's played soccer since she was 5, she also wants to take care of herself, and she wants other athletes to do the same. Slowly, she starts to realize that she's moving from a player's mind-set to a coach's.

Upon leaving school, Melissa starts coaching a Bridgewater club team she once played for. She marries Joe and becomes Melissa Inzitari. In 2002, they have a daughter, Alyssa, who loves to play soccer from the time she first kicks a ball. Melissa still gets headaches and still has to think really hard about where her car is parked. But in 2003, after an EEG shows that her brain is functioning better, she returns to school for a nursing degree.

She also begins training teams of 8-year-old girls whom she will coach until they are teens, teaching them to head balls properly, to avoid collisions, to report injuries fully and honestly. She feels the kids idolizing her, realizes she has a chance to fill their brains with the knowledge she's gained.

She coaches a girl named Lindsay who, by age 12, reminds her of herself: flat-out speed, an iron will to win -- and repeated head injuries. Considering whether to bench Lindsay, Melissa realizes for the first time the relentless pressure her coaches must have felt, from athletes and parents. She tells Lindsay and her family about the big picture, about how too many young athletes with concussions -- fully 50 percent -- return to sports while they still have symptoms, before their brains are ready. Just like she did. Lindsay agrees to sit.

When Melissa's son, Joey, is born with Down syndrome in 2004, she resolves to spend less time on soccer. She walks off the field but can't walk away: Melissa becomes technical director for the Bridgewater Soccer Association, responsible for tryouts, evaluations and getting all 32 teams trainers. That makes 32 groups of players, parents, coaches and trainers who now learn about concussions.

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