Over the past decade, data and analytics have changed the face of sports. New technologies have allowed players and coaches to make minute changes to the way the game is played and managed—and those minute changes can produce exponential results. From Moneyball to marginal gains, these analytics are used to gain a competitive advantage—to help athletes win. But what if this technology could be used to prevent athletes from permanently injuring themselves?
Allen Champagne credits sports (and his mom) with helping him get to where he is today: an MD candidate at Queen’s University, and assistant defensive line coach/team scientist for the school’s varsity football program. But his aspirations go beyond the field—and deep into the world of medicine.
After playing NCAA Division 1 football in North Carolina with the Tar Heels, where he completed his undergrad as a Morehead-Cain scholar, Allen returned to Queen’s and pursued his PhD in neuroscience. Shoulder and back injuries had rendered him unable to compete physically—but he wanted to find a new way back into the game that had given him so much. “Football is a great game for growth and learning about teamwork and collaboration,” Champagne says. “But things need to change—it needs to be made safer for athletes, and science and medicine can drive that process.”
Champagne was drawn to the Queen’s program by its unique mix of medicine and research, with help from Coach Pat Sheahan, former head coach for the Gaels football program – who was essential in Champagne’s recruitment to Kingston. “I’m a strong believer that research helps us push the boundaries of knowledge, while medicine allows you to understand the needs of patients, so that you can leverage your expertise to optimize care.” Champagne's research integrates neuroimaging with helmet sensors and motion capture technologies to uncover new connections between brain health and head trauma, and between sport-specific injury mechanisms and biomechanics. By figuring out proper biomarkers for head injuries, Champagne hopes to integrate evidence-based behaviour changes that will help athletes live better lives, during and after their playing careers. “Head injuries are the biggest threat to the game, right now, and to move forward, we must strive to understand them better, in order to make the game safer.”
Injury prevention in sports is expensive—but losing a player to injury can cost a team even more. So, sports leagues and franchises have a vested interest in having efficient, effective injury prevention strategies in place—and this is where Champagne sees a big opportunity, so he turned his research project into a start-up, in order to expand the scale of his behavior-modifying initiatives.
Élite NeuroKinetix, Inc combines video analysis and impact biomechanics to support and optimize coaching practices, with the objective to reduce the risk for head injuries (while also helping athletes reach peak performance). Their team is currently the official host for all research operations at Football Canada, and looking to expand internationally. “We wanted to turn the football field into a lab, so we travelled across the country gathering data on players, filming them as they went through drills that target specific football skills, using the principles of coaching, to see how they tackled and blocked. We then turned all that data into an assessment that now helps us determine the risk of head injury for athletes, at the individual level. With the evolution of this technology to capture data, we can analyze where a player positions their head and hips during a tackle, or a block, and create a risk profile, which we can then use to show athletes what they can do to improve their game and limit their risk of injury.”
Last year, Champagne spoke at a TedX Conference about the need to integrate safety and performance as tools to allow for athletes to become the best and safest version of themselves. Despite it being a sensitive topic nowadays, Champagne believes that sports play a critical role in the development of young athletes, and that science and technology provide the best solution, moving forward. “More than anything, this is a platform to start having these conversations and, ultimately, make the game safer. Our goal is to see that all players in North America have access to this kind of technology to be able to get an assessment and improve their game—I think all of us wish that we had something like this when we were playing.”
Having wrapped up his first year in med school, Champagne, like all med students, is thinking about the future. “I'm very excited to move forward with my career in medicine. It’s still early, but people are always asking, what do you want to do—it’s been great to have the opportunity to shadow different doctors, and I think I’ve really found my niche. Sports medicine has always been a dream of mine—but the research took me down a path I wasn’t expecting. Looking towards the future, I aspire to become an orthopedic surgeon for a sports team and get opportunities to combine my passion for research and medicine as drivers for my clinical practice.”
His close relationship to the game makes Champagne uniquely suited to a career in sports medicine—and to catalyze a culture change in the sport that he loves. “People forget that this game can change people’s lives, just like it changed mine. It gave me the skills and opportunities I needed to grow and succeed above and beyond the obstacles I faced growing up, and hopefully, I can help provide the same platform for young upcoming athletes, who all deserve a chance to chase their dreams.”
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