Nov. 1, 2023

PhD student honoured with Killam Award for research to prevent concussions

Ash Kolstad explores the use of protective equipment in youth sport
Ash Kolstad

Does your helmet fit right? This is a question that drives Ash Kolstad, third-year PhD student in the Faculty of Kinesiology. He wants to be sure that youth who play sports do not have a concussion that may be preventable, and it is this dedication to concussion prevention research that has Kolstad receiving a Killam Award.

Kolstad has first-hand experience with concussions. He has daily symptoms from a second concussion he sustained 14 years ago when he was bodychecked during a hockey game. At the time, much less was known about concussions, and nobody could give him answers about why he wasn’t recovering.

“My passion lies in preventing concussions from happening in the first place. I don’t want others to go through what I have,” says Kolstad.

Kolstad has a long-standing relationship with the Sport Injury Prevention Research Centre (SIPRC) at UCalgary. Researchers first invited him to a press conference to share about having persistent concussion symptoms, and later in high school, he was invited to provide a youth perspective on their research projects.

This led him to enter an undergraduate degree in kinesiology where he continued to spend summers working in SIPRC, eventually completing a master’s degree and now a PhD with the team.

Kolstad is particularly interested in personal protective equipment in sport. His research focuses on the results of wearing a mouthguard and a properly fitting helmet as well as examining different types and characteristics of mouthguards and helmets.

“I’m interested in protective equipment because it’s under-studied, and because it’s simple in a way. It’s dependent on wearing the right equipment and wearing it properly. If the evidence supports that the proper fit is at issue, it could impact training practices of players and coaches across several sports,” says Kolstad.

Getting the players to wear the equipment properly can be a challenge, notes Kolstad, and he is currently focusing on tackle football.

“Football is interesting, because schools and leagues own the helmets, and they are tasked with making sure they are certified, in good condition, and they give them out to the players for the duration of the season. However, there is no formal training on how to properly fit a helmet,” says Kolstad.

These are the types of potential gaps Kolstad looks for, as coaches shared with him that they can be asked to step in to coach a team and fit upwards of 80 players with helmets, managing the fit throughout the season as well as running practices and other duties.  

Kolstad says some early data from UCalgary’s SHRED study and some data from the United States indicate that only about 40 per cent of players have a good-fitting helmet. 

“What I’m hoping to do is increase the education in this area. To do this we have created 12 ‘yes’ or ‘no’ criteria that we have researched extensively with coaches and players so they can determine if the helmet is fitting properly,” says Kolstad. 

For example, one criterion includes having the player shake their head from side-to-side to see if the helmet is moving. If the helmet is moving, the fit is too loose.

The next step is to provide the coaches from high schools and club teams within Calgary and Québec City with the training to fit a helmet and see if this reduces concussions for the players. If so, a consistent set of guidelines could be created based on the research.

“Ash exemplifies what it means to give back to the community, and we are proud of his work in the faculty. Despite persistent symptoms from a concussion, he is out talking to coaches and players in many sports and conducting important research to keep players safe and in the sport of their choice,” says Dr. Nick Holt, dean in the Faculty of Kinesiology at UCalgary.

Ash Kolstad is also a trainee within the Integrated Concussion Research Program, The Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute, and the Hotchkiss Brain Institute. He has received funding for his research through Canadian Institutes of Health Research Doctoral Research Awards Frederick Banting & Charles Best Canada Graduate Scholarships-Doctoral Program, and UCalgary Eyes High Doctoral Recruitment Scholarship. He is grateful for the support of his supervisors Drs. Carolyn Emery and Brent Hagel as well as his former supervisors and mentors.

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