Identifying a concussed athlete

How to identify a concussion during practice/game play

Concussion is mainly diagnosed through the symptoms that an athlete may report or through comparison with objective baseline testing measures, if available. If an athlete doesn’t report any symptoms, there are very few visual signs that spotters can look for that may indicate concussion.

Here are some of the common signs that spotters should look out for. As a parent, coach, or teammate you can watch for these too. Everyone should be a concussion spotter.

Ways to be a concussion spotter

1. Significant impact to the head or body

A concussion is caused by a hit to the head or elsewhere on the body (due to the force transmitted to the head). This could also include secondary contact with the ice or field. If you see a significant impact then you should suspect a concussion.

2. Loss of consciousness

If an athlete loses consciousness following an impact then it’s definitely a concussion. If they are unconscious for an extended period – more than 60 seconds – then they should be taken to an emergency department immediately as this may mean a more severe injury.

3. Lying motionless

You should suspect a concussion if a player is down on the field or ice, and does not move following an impact; they may be unconscious. This is sometimes accompanied by a fencing reflex or posturing. This is when a player’s arm is flexed or extended into the air for several seconds after a hit. The fencing response is a clear indication that the player is unconscious. Check out the examples in the video below.

4. Clutching the head or helmet

Grabbing the head or helmet following an impact can be an indication of a concussion.

5. Difficulty getting up, stumbling, incoordination, slowed movement or disorientation

In the example, you’ll notice that Chicago Blackhawks captain, Jonathan Toews, shows these symptoms following a huge hit. Keep in mind, any one of these signs after a hit could mean that the player suffered a concussion. 

 6. Blank or vacant stare

Does the athlete seem to be staring into space after the hit? Are they looking at you or right through you? Do they seem dazed and confused? A blank stare may tell you that they have a concussion. 

7. Inability to communicate, unable to respond to questions or slurred speech

Listen to how they talk. If an athlete cannot respond to simple questions or you don’t understand them following an impact, it’s likely they have a concussion.

8. Vomiting

If an individual is sick and vomiting following a big hit or impact, then this is another possible sign of concussion. In fact, vomiting after head trauma may be a sign of a more severe head injury and the athlete should be taken to the hospital immediately.

Recognize and remove!

The culture of sport and toughness is much more apparent at the professional level where the stakes are higher for the athletes. However, at all levels, we need to continue to take a stand and strive to improve the health and safety of athletes through proper concussion recognition and management. Remember, when in doubt, sit them out!

Understanding all the signs and symptoms of concussion is often the first step to proper concussion management. Early recognition and intervention by a licensed healthcare professional with concussion training has been shown to improve recovery time and patient outcomes.  All those involved in sports – teammates, opposing players, coaches, teachers, referees and more – should be a concussion spotter.


This article is not intended as a substitute for the medical advice of doctors and/or healthcare professionals. The reader should consult their physician and/or healthcare providers in matters relating to their health, and in particular, with respect to any concussion and/or symptoms that may require diagnosis or medical attention.

This article was adopted from the Completely Concussion Management Resource Portal.  Click here for more resources.

Photo by Jerry Yu on Unsplash.

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