Nov. 16, 2018

NFL gives significant funding to help youth 'SHRed' the burden of concussion

Faculty of Kinesiology researcher leads groundbreaking pan-Canadian research program
  • Above: University of Calgary researcher Carolyn Emery will lead the pan-Canadian research program funded by the National Football League’s scientific advisory board.

Ash Kolstad was 12 years old when his head hit the boards after he was checked from behind during a hockey game, resulting in a severe concussion and whiplash. The injury forced the honours student to quit the sport and leave school for one year. Nearly a decade later, he still suffers symptoms every day.

“It altered my life,” says Kolstad, now a patient-engaged student researcher in the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary. “This research is really important because it sheds light on the impact of concussion and will help provide families with the most current and accurate information which is reassuring to them.”

Youth account for more than half of the annual burden of more than three million concussions annually in North America. The University of Calgary has received $12 million CDN from the National Football League’s scientific advisory board for a pan-Canadian research program, led by Dr. Carolyn Emery, PhD, researcher in the Faculty of Kinesiology, to reduce concussions and their consequences in youth sport on a national level.

“We are grateful for this financial support from the NFL scientific advisory board and the support of our many collaborators,” says Dr. Elizabeth Cannon, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Calgary. “The best treatment for injuries from youth sport and recreation is prevention. This funding will further advance the Faculty of Kinesiology’s leadership in injury prevention and concussion.”

Through the NFL’s Play Smart. Play Safe initiative, $35 million US in funding was allotted to five institutions in North America in this round for medical research, primarily dedicated to neuroscience. The University of Calgary is the only institution in Canada to receive funding.

Novel research

Led by Dr. Emery, the program, SHRed Concussions (short for Surveillance in High Schools to Reduce Concussions and Consequences of Concussions in Youth) will provide a national platform for concussion surveillance in high schools to evaluate solutions for concussion prevention that will have significant impact in reducing the risk of sport-related concussions and their consequences in youth.

“This is an exciting and truly a pan-Canadian research initiative aimed to reduce the burden of concussions in youth sport nationally,” says Emery, who chairs The Sport Injury Prevention Research Centre in the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary, which is one of 10 International Research Centres for the Prevention of Injury and Protection of Athlete Health supported by the International Olympic Committee.

“This funding is the key to reducing concussions and their public health impact in youth sport,” says Emery. “It will support the development, implementation and evaluation of novel and sustainable approaches to concussion prevention through rule changes, equipment recommendations and training strategies.”

Dr. Keith Yeates, PhD, Ward Chair in Pediatric Brain Injury and leader of the University of Calgary Integrated Concussion Research Program, says the NFL support is a recognition of the university as a world leader in concussion.

“The University of Calgary is among the top five worldwide in terms of scientific advances in concussion, and this award to Dr. Emery confirms our stature as a world leader in concussion research and knowledge translation,” says Yeates, who is also a professor in the Faculty of Arts.

The study will provide a national platform for concussion surveillance in high schools. Researchers are searching for ways to significantly reduce sport-related concussions and their consequences in youth.

Researchers are searching for ways to significantly reduce sport-related concussions in youth.

Colleen De Neve, for the Faculty of Kinesiology

Collaboration across Canada

The SHRed Concussions research team includes more than 35 researchers representing nine Canadian universities and more than 30 community, government and industry partners, and research includes a variety of youth sports, including ice hockey, rugby, football, lacrosse, wrestling, soccer, basketball, volleyball and cheerleading. 

“Parachute is thrilled to be a partner on the SHRed Concussions project,” says Steve Podborski, president and CEO of Parachute, Canada’s national charity dedicated to injury prevention. “We led the creation of the Canadian Guideline for Concussion in Sport and welcome this important research that will evaluate concussion diagnostic tools, prognostic indicators, and prevention and management strategies in young athletes. In our work, we translate such research into practice and look forward to applying the discoveries of this project to improve Canada’s evidence-based prevention and management strategies for concussion for our young athletes and, indeed, for all Canadians.”

The funding will assist in establishing and validating injury surveillance in high schools to “SHRed Concussions,” integrating a variety of tools to detect concussion, predict recovery, and inform best practice and policy in the prevention and management of concussions in youth sport.

“This extensive and groundbreaking research and subsequent education will allow for a positive change in the way coaches coach. It will set up the next generation of youth to enjoy a lower incidence of injury in sports, less injury downtime, and in turn, a lower dropout rate in school and community sport across Canada,” says John Paton, executive director, Alberta Schools’ Athletic Association and past-president of School Sport Canada.

People ask Kolstad if he is resentful about the recommendations he received at the time of his concussion, which one coach referred to as “just a bump on his head.”

“Concussion was not as well understood a few years ago, concussion research has come a long way,” says Kolstad. “I’m not resentful, I’m just glad it led me to concussion research that will help others.”

About the NFL scientific advisory board

Through the NFL’s Play Smart. Play Safe initiative, $40 million in funding was allotted for medical research, primarily dedicated to neuroscience. The NFL assembled a scientific advisory board comprising leading independent experts, doctors, scientists and clinicians to develop and lead a clear process to identify and support compelling proposals for scientific research. The board is chaired by Peter Chiarelli, U.S. army general (retired), former vice-chief of staff of the army, and former CEO of One Mind, a brain research-related non-profit organization. 

About Energize: The Campaign for Eyes High

Energize: The Campaign for Eyes High is the University of Calgary’s most ambitious fundraising campaign in its history. Funds raised through the campaign will support student experiences, research outcomes and community connections. Together we are fueling transformational change for the University of Calgary, our city, and beyond — inspiring discovery, creativity and innovation for generations to come. Formally launched in April 2016, the campaign is more than three quarters to its overall goal of $1.3 billion. 


The Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary is ranked the No. 1 sport science school in North America and No. 7 globally.

Carolyn Emery is also a professor in the departments of Paediatrics and Community Health Science at the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary. She’s a member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute; Hotchkiss Brain Institute; McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health; and O’Brien Institute for Public Health. Her research program is also supported by funds from the Canada Institutes of Health Research, Alberta Innovates, International Olympic Committee Research Centres, the Vi Riddell Pediatric Rehabilitation Research Program and community donations though the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation and National Basketball Association General Electric partnership.

Led by the Hotchkiss Brain InstituteBrain and Mental Health is one of six research strategies guiding the University of Calgary toward its Eyes High goals. The strategy provides a unifying direction for brain and mental health research at the university and positions researchers to unlock new discoveries and treatments for brain health in our community.