Shadowman – the dummy that tackles concussion head on
An Irishman has designed a product that safeguards players from the increasing risks linked with contact sports, writes Marie Crowe
Hearing Clare hurler John Conlon's account of the concussion he suffered in the Munster semi-final against Cork, reading about the tragic death of 14-year-old Benjamin Robinson from 'second impact syndrome' and seeing the effects of concussion on the NFL players have all shone the spotlight on what is a very serious issue in sport.
These cases are just the latest in a long line of worrying incidences that are getting more and more prevalent as athletes – both amateur and professional – get fitter, faster and stronger.
Of course various associations are reacting, especially in America where the NFL have reduced the number of contact sessions in pre-season training. Getting players to games fully fit is what these big franchises are aiming to do and heavy hitting in training is preventing this from happening consistently.
In June, America's largest youth football organisation, Pop Warner, announced that they would limit the amount of full-speed collisions and other contact allowed in practice.
And while the debate rages on about player welfare and safety, Limerick man JP Hartigan has developed a product that goes a long way to safeguarding players from some of the dangers that come with playing contact sports.
The 26-year-old has designed, created and manufactured a tackling dummy called Shadowman. It's an inflatable human-shaped dummy that fits into a ring, and is filled with water at the bottom to give it a low centre of gravity so it stays put when tackled.
"We are creating new, safe environments so people can practise difficult and dangerous skills safely," says Hartigan. "They can then do them more often and ultimately get better at them. We are cutting down the body-to-body contact."
Hartigan's idea came about while studying Product Design and Technology at the University of Limerick. For his final year, he had to carry out a research project, build a prototype and find out if it was commercially viable. So he came up with Shadowman and during the process decided to patent the product. It was an expensive process so, while his college friends headed to America on a J1 visa, the former rugby player stayed behind to save money for the patent.
Although it was a hard decision to make at the time it proved to be a worthwhile one. The following year he joined the Limerick Enterprise Acceleration Platform and started to make progress. It gave him access to some funding from Enterprise Ireland and opened some doors in America at trade fairs. In March of last year he travelled to San Francisco with the Irish Technology Leadership Group and while there set up some meetings with NFL teams. He learnt a lot about the market and the ins and outs of Silicon Valley. It gave him an insight into how expansive the US market is, especially when it comes to sport.
"It's such a professional industry and it's big business, not only the NFL but college football too," he says. "Every level of it complements the next and they are all run as businesses."
Armed with this knowledge Hartigan travelled back to America earlier this year and set up a booth at the American Football Coaches Association trade fair. He hired his own staff at the event and displayed Shadowman. There were almost 6,000 coaches present and his product was well received. Shadowman is already being used in several US colleges including San Jose and Filton Pride.
"Coaches are looking to still practise the skills of tackle but they are restricted by the governing bodies. We are very much geared towards tackling better. Studies have shown that most injuries happen in training and our system is the only one where American football players can practise the tackle all season long and they can do it with pads or without pads."
Although he is presently focused on the American football market, he plans to return to the rugby world next year. Hartigan, who went to St Munchin's in Limerick and used to play for Garryowen, feels that tackling is a major issue in the sport. "It's a reactive skill that they are practising; they have to move their feet, hands, head and their whole body position. Tackling needs to be practised safely, not just kids or adults hitting into each other constantly at training."
He also feels rugby will follow in the footsteps of the NFL and limit the amount of tackling sessions allowed, at all levels of the sport. Just last week former Leinster player Rocky Elsom revealed that he felt the Australian Rugby Union could be leaving itself open to an NFL-style class action. The NFL recently made a $765m out-of-court settlement with former players who say they hid the dangers of concussion.
Also last month Dr Willie Stewart, a consultant neuropathologist at Glasgow's Southern General Hospital, publicly revealed that he had encountered the first confirmed case of early dementia caused by playing rugby. He said he believed this would suggest that one or two players competing in the Six Nations every year may go on to develop the condition.
Concussion is a problem that is not going away and every small difference made in helping prevent it is invaluable.