A pack of seventh grade soccer players huddles around a makeshift batting cage inside WSU’s Sports Science Laboratory one Friday last March. One by one, they step inside the black netting to stand under bright lights and high-speed cameras.

Girl heading a soccer ball
Strength training paired with improved flexibility may reduce concussions in young athletes. Photo Rick Gomez/Blend Images

“3 … 2 … 1,” a voice calls out.

An air-pressurized cannon shoots a soccer ball 30 feet across the cage and the 13-year-old tries to head the ball back in the direction from which it came.

The purpose of such madness? Kasee Hildenbrand, associate professor in the College of Education, is exploring the roll the neck plays in the incidence of concussions.

Her preliminary work tracking one of Pullman’s youth soccer teams over the past two years challenges the prevailing wisdom about athletic head injuries: Developing a strong neck is the only way to avoid concussions.

“I don’t think increased neck strength leads to more concussions,” she says. But “I think neck strength alone is not going to prevent them, as the current train of thought goes.”

The current theory hasn’t been especially effective. Hildenbrand says recent reports suggest that between more than 1.8 and 3.6 million youth athletes suffer concussions each year. More parents are now questioning whether their kids should play sports at all.

“It appears from the youth research and the football player research that I have done, that impacts tend to be of a higher magnitude in kids with stronger necks and that athletes with a previous history of concussions tend to have stronger necks,” Hildenbrand says.

So the professor and Sports Science Laboratory research project manager Derek Nevins teamed up to examine more closely the role the neck plays by studying each player “heading” a lobbed soccer ball back at the machine. They fitted each kid with tracking stickers and headbands to measure the force of impact when the ball makes contact with the forehead.

“It’s kind of an exciting time for the lab, and hopefully we can continue to do cool things,” Nevins said. “There’s a lot of awesome stuff that goes on down here that people don’t ever hear about.”

Their first test subject? Hildenbrand’s son Kaden, an avid soccer player at Pullman Middle School. “I had mixed emotions when my mom told me she’d be shooting a soccer ball out of a cannon at my head,” he says.

But the cannon, built by WSU engineering students, was just tossing lobs.

Hildenbrand and Nevin’s theory is that neck strengthening—a practice preached by football trainers across the country—must be accompanied by the development of flexibility and a greater range of motion, says Hildenbrand.

“That translation of research out of the lab and into the field or the clinic [is their current challenge],” she says. “It’s always been a question of mine of how you facilitate that, because there are a lot of amazing things that happen in laboratories that either don’t make it to the clinic for lack of interest or publicity or they don’t make it for lack of planning.”