Coaches Debate Mouthguard Rule

By Staff

Coaching Management, 14.6, August 2006,

According to coaches, they spread illness throughout a lineup, discourage communication between teammates, and inhibit good sportsmanship. Medical experts say they reduce the risk of concussions and protect against dental injuries. Who’d have thought a little piece of plastic could create so much controversy?

The battleground is Massachusetts, one of a handful of states that require mouthguards in high school basketball. Convinced that requiring mouthguards is a bad idea, the Massachusetts Basketball Coaches Association (MBCA) is trying to get the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) rule overturned.

“Cleanliness is one of our biggest concerns,” says Dennis Dextradeur, Head Boys’ Coach at Quabbin Regional High School and former President of the MBCA. “Kids are putting them in and taking them out of their mouths during games, dropping them on the dirty floor and then putting them back in, and sharing them with teammates if someone forgot theirs.

“Mouthguards make it much more difficult for players to talk to one another during the game,” continues Dextradeur. “And they’ve even affected the level of sportsmanship and respect on the court, because officials don’t want to shake hands with players after the game, and players don’t want to shake hands with each other—they’ve seen everyone handling their mouthguards all game.”

The MBCA doesn’t want mouthguards prohibited, but would like their use to be “strongly recommended” instead of required. The change has the support of the MIAA Basketball Committee, as well as many referees in the state and some school nurses.

The MIAA Sports Medicine Committee, which sponsored the rule when it was adopted three years ago, has no hard data showing that mouthguards reduce injuries in basketball, but members don’t want to wait for reports of orofacial injuries and concussions to prove their point. “This rule was a proactive decision,” says Sports Medicine Committee member Dr. Alan Ashare. “A mouthguard provides protection to the teeth and gums, and also decreases concussion risk by attenuating some of the force of a blow to the lower jaw, such as from an elbow to the head in basketball.”

In response to the coaches’ complaints, Ashare points out that a well made and properly fitted mouthguard solves most problems. “It’s true that if you buy a cheap boil-and-bite mouthguard that isn’t the right size, it will fall out and you’ll have a difficult time talking,” he says. “But the custom-fit models offered by dentists, and some of the higher-quality ones you can buy on your own, will stay in place and allow you to talk without a problem. Coaches need to advise their athletes to choose wisely.”

The Sports Medicine Committee will hear the MBCA’s rationale for the proposed rule change at a meeting this summer, and depending on the outcome, a recommendation for a revised rule may be given to the MIAA Board of Directors some time next year. For coaches, change can’t come soon enough.

“I haven’t talked to one coach who likes this rule,” says Victor Ortiz, Head Boys’ Coach at Brockton High School, the largest high school in the state. “It’s ridiculous. I’ve been coaching for 30 years, and I’ve never seen injuries in basketball that a mouthguard would have prevented. If a kid wants to wear one, that’s fine, but it shouldn’t be mandatory. And if given the choice, I guarantee that all my players would get rid of them.”