Just one minute into the first round of a sparring match at Aquinas Institute, and Michael Robertson has already thrown and ducked dozens of punches. The young boxer has been hit a number of times, too. In the second round, his opponent takes control at times, backing Robertson into a corner and landing continuous jabs. Coach Dominic Arioli stands inside the ring, pacing quickly.
“Don’t rush, don’t rush.”
“Bend over like this. Get down like this,” says Arioli.
Arioli teaches high school students on the unisex boxing team how to fight properly. He shows them how to punch with precision and, when on defense, keep their hands up.
To closely monitor the tougher blows, the longtime coach suits his team members up with wearable technology. It’s a small, thin, and flexible sensor that fits inside a headband or skullcap. Not only does the Linx Impact Assessment System (IAS) help identify signs of a concussion, it also can uncover other, more common, types of brain injuries.
BlackBox Biometrics, Inc. created Linx IAS to give parents, coaches and doctors real-time feedback on hits. The sensor is worn during practice or a game and allows the user to pull up the data on a smartphone or tablet.
Tapping a single button on the sensor will trigger either a green, yellow or red LED – with red being the indicator that the hit was too hard to ignore. The blow is also given an impact assessment score.
“That gives a number from one to 100 so the individual can gauge the severity of each of those impacts on that scale. But we also capture all the detailed data, which is really critical for research,” says David Borkholder, the company’s chief technology officer.
BlackBox Biometrics has worked with a number of upstate New York teams to demonstrate Linx IAS. The Aquinas boxing team is the only group currently outfitted with the device. Last summer, players on the Rochester Rhinos soccer team also gave it a try. Borkholder says the field demonstrations have proven useful, most recently at a boxing championship bout when a fighter took a hard punch.
“As a result of the data, they took him to the doctor and he was diagnosed with a concussion.”
Having released the second generation of Linx IAS, the team at BlackBox Biometrics continues to brainstorm ways to push the technology forward.
“Another emerging area that I think is going to be even more important are repetitive sub-concussive hits,” says Borkholder.
A cumulative effect
Brain trauma among athletes may be less the result of violent hits that cause concussions and more related to the accumulation of sub-concussive blows.
“One of the things I look at with the device is not only how hard they’re getting hit, but if they’re getting hit, how often with blows that register,” says Arioli.
According to Dr. Jeff Bazarian of the University of Rochester Medical Center, there’s often a thin line between suffering a concussion and not.
“Concussion may just come from hitting your brain just right to stop your brain from working temporarily where you don’t remember something or are confused. But you can get brain injury by hitting it and not getting those symptoms as well,” says Bazarian.
Bazarian, a professor of emergency medicine who has done extensive research into traumatic brain injuries, sits on BlackBox’s scientific advisory board. He says it was important for the company to design a device that could also detect other brain trauma. Bazarian explains that there are many contact sport athletes who get hit in the head repeatedly and never have a concussion, but at the same time a scan could reveal mild brain injury.
BlackBox Biometrics plans to refine the technology in its upcoming third generation of Linx IAS to reflect Bazarian’s advice.
The last several years have seen a growing number of companies introduce impact sensors, and an increase in physicians diagnosing concussions. Before doctors were able to better recognize that specific brain injury in a scan, Bazarian says patients were sometimes misled.
“People would say, ‘These problems that you’re having are not rooted in anything real. They’re just a psychiatric response to being hit,’” says Bazarian.
Back to the basics
There’s an adage in boxing that the best defense is to not get hit. Being a skilled defender is the key part of not getting hit, or at least getting hit less.
“If I see a kid’s getting hit more than they should – he’s got to work on something. Whether it’s more defense or maybe this isn’t the sport for him or her,” says Arioli.
Arioli first stepped into the ring when he was a pre-teen and has been running the program at Aquinas for more than three decades. As he watches two teammates spar, he gives occasional pointers, like “Work with each other,” that let you know he’s from the old school. Arioli says he is a firm believer that technology cannot take the place of good training, but devices like Linx IAS are worthwhile.
“It gives me something to show them – physically show them. Look how often you’re getting hit. What’s the story here?”