John Gunning

Sumo and Head Injury / Concussion

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I think that the problem of head injury and concussion is potentially serious enough to deserve its own topic.

I’ve been saying for years a reckoning is coming to the sport once awareness of brain injury reaches the levels it’s at in football / rugby. 

Here’s my column today on the latest incident.

 

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John, Thank you for speaking up on this.

I don't know what was worse, seeing him trying to get back up with everyone just looking at him or the MIB having no idea what to do (let's call a monoii and make the wrong decision).

I couldn't believe it when they allowed him to get back up on the dohyo. 

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Those videos are shocking. I found myself screaming "help him" at my computer screen. 

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John, thank you for your article and for using the platform you have to bring up this very serious issue. It's been a topic circulating around the sumo community for some time. Finally, a ray of light has appeared as the Kyokai seems to be considering adding/adjusting rules to accommodate the situation. One can only hope that it will protect these young men sufficiently. 

Do you guys think that putting the shikiri-sen back slightly will help? With the popularisation of oshi rikishi and their tendency to have a head-on rather than chest-first tachiai, won't the number of concussion or at least possibility of getting one increase? Someone as large as a rikishi can hardly take half a step before colliding with someone. Perhaps coupled with a revamp of the injury system? By the way, I am not implying that we should bring back kosho-seido - but perhaps a more exploitation-proof version of it. 

Edited by pricklypomegranate

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In gridiron football using a larger exclusion zone definitely reduces impact speeds--having to move your feet before impact makes a big difference.  Canadian rules uses a yard instead of a foot, and that's a big deal.  
The head-first tachiai might also be legislated out of existence, though writing the rule carefully would be challenging.  

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Thanks John, hopefully someone at the JSA will start to listen. The article mentions the improvements in rugby though such improvements, as John mentions, have come too late for a number of past players who are currently involved in a class lawsuit against various rugby bodies in the UK. I wonder if the JSA's lack of action is opening them up to something similar in the future? Is that form of legal redress possible in Japan? If so, the JSA might be in for a spate of future claims. (If Shonannoumi was a rugby player in my country, he would not be allowed to play for a minimum of 19 days, would have to be certified symptom free by a doctor and, would have to go through a graded re-introduction to training. It might not be perfect but that's some difference to 'stand up and fight again two minutes later').

Talking of rugby, even amateur clubs are encouraged to have staff trained in the use of back board/neck immobilizers as well as identifying concussion. Professional clubs of course have to have suitably qualified medical staff and facilities. So, it beggars belief that a major, prime-time, national, COMBAT sport in Japan does not have medical personnel ringside. When you think about it, it's absolutely unbelievable in the 21st century. This really does have to change especially when you see a young lad unable to stand up and his 'elders & betters' looking at each other utterly clueless. Where's the duty of care for these guys?

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They spend so many years honing and perfecting their tachiai, though. Wouldn't it be chaos if there were sweeping changes made now?

Imagine telling Chiyotairyu, for example, that the can no longer cannonball the way he always has, and now has to start standing.

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Hardly. Most wrestlers are constantly adjusting their tachi ai, based on their ability, their opponents ability, their current stack of injuries, etc. Anyone who gets too predictable (cough, Kotoshogiku, cough) often finds themselves at a disadvantage. Just like various times when the kyokai enforces the hands down thing, wrestlers would adjust. 

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4 minutes ago, yohcun said:

They spend so many years honing and perfecting their tachiai, though. Wouldn't it be chaos if there were sweeping changes made now?

Imagine telling Chiyotairyu, for example, that the can no longer cannonball the way he always has, and now has to start standing.

Looking at old bouts, hands down wasn't the thing until at least the nineties (waiting for the knowledgeable people on the forum to call in).  Looking at Kaio, Musashimaru, etc., even when their hands were down they lifted their heads at the tachiai.  Was there chaos when the gyoji started calling for "hands down"?

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58 minutes ago, Yamanashi said:

Looking at old bouts, hands down wasn't the thing until at least the nineties (waiting for the knowledgeable people on the forum to call in).  Looking at Kaio, Musashimaru, etc., even when their hands were down they lifted their heads at the tachiai.  Was there chaos when the gyoji started calling for "hands down"?

Two, probably related, things started in the early 2000's.  Major enforcement was placed on the 2 hands down rule, and the oyakata began emphasizing "forward moving sumo" for the Japanese rikishi (easier training than that needed for yotsu rkishi) .  Prior to that,  head butts were relatively rare.  More canon ball rikishi started to appear, and more rikishi collided with their head lowered.  Earlier sumo was essentially a stand and fight activity.  

Edited by Asojima
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I hope that Shonannoumi winning didn't give anyone the impression that it's something that can just be shrugged off...

Edited by Katooshu

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8 hours ago, Karasukurai said:

Professional clubs of course have to have suitably qualified medical staff and facilities. So, it beggars belief that a major, prime-time, national, COMBAT sport in Japan does not have medical personnel ringside

It is often said (and I have experienced - positively and negatively) that the first minutes after any major sports injury are crucial to the recovery. The shocking handling of on-dohyo injuries isn't even limited just to head injuries. It's worth asking how much could be improved if the people who are tasked with assisting rikishi who have suffered serious injury even made an attempt to immobilise them rather than watching for several minutes as they try to wriggle off the ground. We can look at someone like Tomokaze who hasn't been seen in a basho since his injury, and think back to the several minutes it took even for a wheelchair to be brought in. Or even someone like Takayasu who we saw collapse after a leg injury (torn muscle?), yelping in pain but receiving no meaningful assistance. Especially in these potentially life-altering incidents of head injuries, whoever is responsible should be in there like a shot, yet no one comes at all. There are a lot of qualifications one must meet on and off the dohyo to hold the responsibility of being a sumo elder and basic guidelines for dealing with injuries should be one of them.

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16 hours ago, pricklypomegranate said:

Do you guys think that putting the shikiri-sen back slightly will help? 

You don't need to be right up at the line.

 

 

 

 

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1 hour ago, John Gunning said:

You don't need to be right up at the line.

I understand that a rikishi does not have to go up exactly to the line, but most do. So would putting the shikiri-sen back slightly sort of "mandate" them to keep a greater distance between one another? 

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4 hours ago, Yamanashi said:

Looking at old bouts, hands down wasn't the thing until at least the nineties (waiting for the knowledgeable people on the forum to call in).  Looking at Kaio, Musashimaru, etc., even when their hands were down they lifted their heads at the tachiai.  Was there chaos when the gyoji started calling for "hands down"?

The no-touch tachiai came to prominence around 1955. Prior to that, 'hands down' was enforced (or at least inculcated in the rikishi). The absence of enforcement in the 50s led to the glaring abuse of the tachiai in the 60s and 70s with which we are so familiar. Enforcement of at least one hand down formally returned in September 1984, and today's strict enforcement came about as a gradual product of that. The run-at-each-other period of sumo was strikingly brief in the history of the sport - and I have not found any reports of rikishi complaining about the return of form. Possibly there were, but I have not seen them.

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Concussion protocol has come to light lately within the American wrestling community as well. The NFHS has implemented protocols for if and when a wrestler is suspected of having a concussion during a match that the there has to be medical staff attend to the injured wrestler and do a check to see if they do have a concussion or not. If we as officials decide to make the call that the wrestler does have a concussion, they get pulled from the match asap. It is a serious issue and it is obvious that many rikishi have had it over the years too. 

Let's not forget that a number of wrestlers probably suffer from Chronic traumatic encephalopathy which is the CTE plague that has been plaguing football players for years. 

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2 hours ago, mugatake said:

The run-at-each-other period of sumo was strikingly brief in the history of the sport - and I have not found any reports of rikishi complaining about the return of form. Possibly there were, but I have not seen them.

In @Kintamayama's interview with Konishiki (please make part 2!), Konishiki stated that the enforcement of two hands down made doing the tachiai more difficult for him, perhaps because his great bulk made getting up quickly difficult. While today's makuuchi rikishi certainly are nowhere even the weight of Konishiki at his heaviest (yes, that includes Ichinojo), I think the average weight has increased. If anything, they might benefit from it. The reason why they haven't complained might be because they haven't experienced extremely lax enforcement of two-hands down in honbasho. 

But yes, all the problems do seem to be connected to me... 

Edited by pricklypomegranate

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4 hours ago, pricklypomegranate said:

But yes, all the problems do seem to be connected to me... 

No, no, I don't blame you at all.;-)

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1 minute ago, Yamanashi said:

No, no, I don't blame you at all.;-)

(Laughing...) Now that I read it it sounds very odd. I meant: "To me, all the problems seem connected." How embarassing! :-S

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12 hours ago, Yamanashi said:

Looking at old bouts, hands down wasn't the thing until at least the nineties (waiting for the knowledgeable people on the forum to call in). 

Hands down came in earlier than that - mid 1980s. Alll the sekitori were made to watch old matches of Futabayama to see how the tachi-ai should be done. It was definitely being enforced by 1987 which was when I saw my first basho.

Edited by ryafuji

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The problem starts at the grassroots level, wrestlers are taught from a very young age to charge in head first

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37 minutes ago, ryafuji said:

Hands down came in earlier than that - mid 1980s. Alll the sekitori were made to watch old matches of Futabayama to see how the tachi-ai should be done. It was definitely being enforced by 1987 which was when I saw my first basho.

maybe, but I can see videos of Chiyonofuji in bouts from 1985,1986,1987 where the "hands down" is very pro forma, and they immediately get upright and grab each other.

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It's not just head butting, though, is it? Hakuho famously KO-ed Myogiryu with that kachi-age to the chin, and that sort of twisting can be just as damaging to the brain as a direct concussive impact. Those heel of the palm harite that turn an opponent's knees to water are brain injurers, too, for the same reason.

Sumo is going to look very different when it's finally forced to adhere to western standards of sporting health and safety.

Thing is, the NSK could solve the deliberate head butting problem by simply pointing to very successful rikishi like Hakuho, Shodai, Asanoyama and Terunofuji and say, "That's how you've got to do it from now on."

Takakeisho would be even more buggered than he already is, and riji-cho Hakkaku would never have had a career, but there you go.

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1 hour ago, RabidJohn said:

Sumo is going to look very different when it's finally forced to adhere to western standards of sporting health and safety.

Effectively, all youth (American) football programs teach "heads up" tackling techniques to prevent head-down contact.

 

1 hour ago, RabidJohn said:

and riji-cho Hakkaku would never have had a career, but there you go.

So, what you're saying is that one of the most successful rikishi at the art of brain-damaging head butts is the head of the NSK?

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This is such a difficult topic for sumo to address that I almost wonder if the Kyokai are aware but choosing to ignore it and relying on the protection of ‘tradition’ and ‘cultural heritage’. It’s fairly easy to legislate for this problem in most other sports, even collision heavy ones like rugby and American football. But sumo? There may be some small adjustments that can be made to manage the problem, like requiring head checks after bouts and mandating kyujo for anyone showing signs of concussion, but it’s hard to see how they remove the risk entirely without fundamentally changing the sport itself. Tachiai is so integral to the bout and part of what distinguishes sumo from other combat sports. I suppose you could change it to literally ‘stand and engage’ with rules against shifting your weight forward unsupported (like how you make a ruck legal in rugby) but that would be very hard to officiate and we’d get matta all day long. Tough one to resolve.

But then, maybe they don’t need to ‘resolve’ it? Rugby has taken the approach of trying to minimize the risk while making players aware of it so that they take on some of the legal responsibility. i.e. You play at your own risk, knowing what could happen to you. That was what got the NFL in trouble – they knew about the dangers and kept quiet about it. Maybe all sumo needs to do is try to manage the effects of head contact with better off-dohyo care and improve education so that aspiring rikishi know what they’re getting themselves into. Perhaps, from a legal POV, that would be enough to keep sumo intact as we know it while empowering rikishi to make informed choices in the interest of their own health. 

Edited by Eikokurai
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