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From Concussions to Coaching: How an Injured Athlete is Redefining Her Role in the Game

By Staff, 10/11/23, 3:30PM EDT


“Stay hopeful and value what you still can do.”

Play. Inspire. Unite.

Meet Allison Hollingshead.

She’s a grade 11 student at Pine Ridge Secondary School, has a part-time job at Bath and Body Works, and dreams of becoming a teacher. She also plays competitive soccer with Markham Soccer Club. Allison is a goalie and has been since she was eight years old. The sport has Allison’s heart - despite putting her through trials and tribulations that no young athlete should have to endure.

In September 2021, a routine practice with her team at Markham SC would end up changing the course of Allison’s soccer career, and nearly every other aspect of her day-to-day life.

As usual, Allison went into that fateful practice with a positive attitude. The team had won their match the previous day, with Allison making a great breakaway save.

Everything was going according to plan, until the last 15 minutes of practice.

“We were doing a shooting and crossing drill, and a cross came in low, so I dove out for it,” Allison recalled. “I got kicked in the back of the head.”

Though shaken from the blow, Allison felt fine and decided to push through the final minutes of practice. It wasn’t until Allison showed up at school that she realized something was very wrong.

“Within ten minutes, I couldn’t see straight. I was dizzy, lightheaded – I don’t even fully remember what happened,” she continued. “I just remember going down to the office and my parents coming to get me. Then we went to Markham Stouffville Hospital. We sat for a long time. We were there for about six hours. They said that I had a minor concussion and that I should be good in a couple of weeks. But it ended up being three months.”

A relentless road to recovery

Allison spent that time doing half-days at school. She felt somewhat left behind as the rest of the world began its return to “normal” in the COVID-19 pandemic. Allison had just started high school, and in- person classes and school activities had returned for the first time since March 2020. She had to miss out on a lot of that.

When returning to soccer, Allison’s Goal Coach insisted she wear a padded headband to help protect her head from further injury. Everything was going well until August 2022, when Allison took another devastating blow.

This time, a soccer ball struck her in the back of her head. Although it made impact with her padded helmet, Allison knew immediately that something was wrong.

It was supposed to take two weeks for her to recover from the second hit, but as of today - over one year after the incident - Allison is still waiting to get cleared.

Over the last year, Allison has been dealing with constant headaches, severe fatigue, and other debilitating symptoms resulting from her head injuries. She and her family have embarked on a journey to find answers, visiting six different healthcare providers from chiropractors, massage therapists and sports medicine specialists, to neurologists and vestibular physiotherapists. Each had their theories, treatments, and hopes for her recovery, but none have been able to find the elusive solution.

Photo courtesy of Allison Hollingshead

A recent breakthrough has helped Allison remain hopeful for a comeback. A physiotherapist she’d recently been working with for vision therapy brought her case to a Facebook group of medical professionals in the area, and someone suggested the issue could be with the atlas bone in Allison’s neck. She had an MRI and is now working with a clinic in Mississauga on further testing and treatment.

Putting dreams on hold

Being on the recovery roller coaster for over a year now, Allison has tried everything from rest and at- home exercises to prescribed medicines and vision therapy. As a precaution, her soccer career has been put on pause until her symptoms start to improve.

“I’ve been at just about every practice for the last year, but not been able to do anything, which is hard because soccer is my favourite thing in the world, but I’m not able to do it,” Allison said, adding that watching her friends continue to play has been especially difficult.

With all she’s been through, Allison has every right to be angry. But she’s not. Instead, when Allison feels discouraged, she’s able to put her situation into perspective and see the silver lining.

“Two of my teammates have torn their ACLs. So, the thing for me is that I can still put on my cleats, and I can still get touches on the ball, whereas they can’t, so I’m still fortunate in that sense,” Allison said sincerely. “It gives me hope that it’s coming – it's just a bit farther away than I’d like.”

Allison is determined to get back on the pitch, no matter how long it takes. In the meantime, she is finding other ways to stay involved in soccer without putting herself at risk of further injury.

Through these experiences she has discovered an even deeper love for the game.

Allison plays on

Allison has wanted to be a soccer Coach since she was a tween. Since her head injury, Allison has been racking up volunteer hours by assisting with goalie training. She gained more exposure to the Coaching role when BMO Girls Play ON! came to Vaughan in July.

In one day, Allison earned a Coaching certificate and led a team of U7 and U8 girls in a 3v3 Festival. Allison and over a dozen more U16 and U17 girls joined instructors Nadine Powell and Hollie Babut for a morning coaching clinic – which was the highlight of the day for Allison.

At one point in the session, the coaching participants came up with a series of engaging drills that could be used with the U7 and U8 groups later in the day. This brought up feelings of nostalgia for Allison, performing the same exercises she did as a young player.

“Stuff like that brings me back to the time when I really started to say, ‘Oh, this is what I want to do,” Allison said. “Being able to plan for younger kids who are thinking the same thing is really special.”

While she’s excited to share her knowledge and love of the game – particularly with aspiring goalkeepers - becoming a Coach goes far beyond the field for Allison:

“I want to be someone [players] have no nerves about approaching, that they can talk to about anything – soccer related or not. I want to be someone that inspires them, that pushes them to do their best in a way that doesn’t harm their mental health or make them think that I don’t value them.”

Being a role model for other young girls is also important to Allison, describing the role of a woman in Coaching like that of a big sister.

Despite playing the game as long as she can remember, Allison has only had a handful of female Coaches in her life. Two of them were House League Coaches in Pickering when she was four, and the other is her current Coach, Laura Gosse in Markham, who was named the Sport Chek Coach of the Month in July.

“I’m seeing more female Head Coaches these days, or at least Assistant Coaches, but the thing that I really want to change is I haven’t seen a Female Head Goalie Coach,” said Allison. “With Markham, I’ve had an Assistant Goalie Coach who’s a female, but still not a head Coach. That’s something I want to contribute to.”

Allison Hollingshead has been through a lot in the last few years, but through all of that, her love of soccer has only grown stronger. She is determined to get back in the game once she’s healthy, but in the meantime, Allison will continue to show up for her teammates, study the sport, and share her passion for soccer with the next generation.

She offers a word of advice to other players who are recovering from concussions:

“Stay hopeful and really value what you still can do.”