AFLW Player Bree White tackles concussion risks in schools head on
24 Jan 2019
Collingwood’s (now retired) player Bree White cuts a tiny frame as she marches across the Moonee Ponds West Primary School footy oval. She has spent much of her life around the game in one way or another, long before her professional sporting career began and her teaching role kicked in.
As a fulltime PE teacher she knows the range of risks involved in playing contact sports and the importance of teaching children correct tackling methods. She also recognises a need to build awareness of concussion risks among teachers, parents and children.
“Kids love all kinds of sports and will usually have a go at everything going on in the playground. Anything with a ball carries the potential for contact between children playing. It’s important to teach kids correct tackling methods for the sports they learn, including footy, soccer, and rugby. But there is also the issue of mismatching sizes of children playing in a game together, and we need to be mindful of this when pairing kids or setting up competitive games.”
Children generally experience injury, in some form or another, during their school years and especially if they play contact sports. A knock to the head however, may result in a concussion and no matter how mild or severe the concussion is, most people know very little about this type of injury.
Professor John Olver is an internationally renowned expert in Acquired Brain Injury rehabilitation and leads a team of medical professionals at Epworth Hospital’s Concussion Unit in Victoria. He says that concussion awareness is very good at elite sports level and among professional athletes in Australia.
“But awareness hasn’t filtered down to schools and community sporting clubs, not nearly enough. In Australia, there are either really good policies (at an elite professional sports level) or there are none at all.”
Bree White grew up in Ballarat and played footy from as far back in her childhood as she can remember. She filled in for missing players for her brothers’ club Dunnstown, and even acted as a boundary umpire in local games. As she got older, mixed teams were no longer open to her but she joined her school footy team for Loreto College and when she was 18 she joined VWFL St. Albans Spurs.
“I captained the Spurs in 2016,” recalls White who represented Victoria three times.
“There were the usual bumps and scratches of the game. I have experienced a concussion before. I remember I just didn’t feel right for about a week or two and sat out playing. I felt sick, just not right at all. It wasn’t pleasant.”
While any physical activity can potentially carry the risk of an injury or a head knock, contact sports by nature carry higher risk of injury for players.
“It’s really difficult to determine if there is one sport that makes players more at risk than others because so much depends on the circumstances of the game and on the individual player or players. But yes, rugby and AFL are likely to have a higher risk of injuries,” she explains.
White implements safety precautions before sports activities and event, to reduce the risk of injuries and especially ones that can cause damage to the head or neck.
“There are a range of things that I do before students play a game. I conduct pre-ground checks to assess the ground conditions to see if they should go on the field in the first place. Sometimes the ground can be slippery, or have debris that needs to be removed. There are times the ground can be frozen and not suitable for playing on. I think fitting posts and barriers at goal posts is always important. When we play a match away, I know that we’ll have competent staff to manage an emergency, and that there’ll be adequate first aid facilities at the ground we’re visiting.”
White’s AFL Women's career began when she played in round 1 of the 2017 inaugural AFLW match at IKON Park against Carlton. She was one of Collingwood's star players and named in Collingwood's top 10 best and fairest. Collingwood re-signed White for the 2018 season during the trade period in May 2017.
Signing lunchboxes for kids at school who wanted her autograph was something she managed with great patience and humour. Though she retired from her AFLW career at the end of the 2018 season, she still loves to play sport and will always be passionate about the game.
And her lifelong commitment to sport hasn’t stopped.
With her friend and AFL Melbourne player Neville Jetta, White helped to launch Vichealth's Walk to School program in 2017. The initiative encourages kids to walk, ride or scooter to school and to build healthy habits.
Teaching children how to play sports is fun but also hard work.
“We know the importance of physical exercise in school-aged children helps with their overall development and growth as humans. Sport helps kids with gross motor skills, co-ordination, and teaches them teamwork. When I teach kids the importance of fair play in competitive sports, correct tackling methods and so on, I’m also teaching them about risk and how to make safe choices.”
White agrees there is work to be done in raising awareness about concussion and its little understood symptoms. Professor Olver explains that concussion symptoms often evolve over time, and schools need to be supported in their implementation of a concussion protocol.
“I think schools will generally need a specific concussion management policy as part of their overall health and safety policy” says White.
“Raising concussion awareness is an important first step,” explains Olver.
He says that “all schools should have a concussion protocol. In the future we are going to see more women playing professional contact sports such as AFLW matches. What we should also keep in mind is that the latest research finds women and children come off worse from a concussion and take longer to recover.”Bree White agrees and wants to ensure that children have a positive and safe sporting environment to learn and grow.
“Keeping children active and in the game is important for their development,” she says. “If we can teach them how to play using the skills and judgment of professionals, correct tackling and knowing when to stop and sit out, we’ll have a positive sporting environment that supports safety. I know a lot of kids dream about making it through to joining a club one day. I tell them that winning two Premierships is gold. You can’t beat the feeling and experience of the whole build up.”
About Bree White
Bree White is a PE teacher at Moonee Ponds West Primary School in Victoria. She was a professional AFLW midfield player for Collingwood and competed in 11 games, averaging 8.5 disposals and three tackles a game. She was also a national under-23 cricketer and represented Victoria's under-19 and senior women cricket teams. White has played Gaelic football with London GAA, featuring in the All-Ireland Junior Ladies' Football Championship Final, in 2007.