Sunday, February 27, 2011

Woodsball Injury Prevention

Paintball is statistically one of the safest sports activities, behind even Baseball, Basketball, and Football in injury rates. Trips, sprains, and falls are now the leading causes of Paintball injuries, with strict mask enforcement at Paintball fields having almost eliminated eye and ear injuries.

But with all this emphasis on protecting the eyes and ears, what's being done about the trips, sprains, and falls? When was the last time you heard a field owner or ref at a safety briefing warn players to watch their step in muddy conditions, or to be careful around a treacherous drop near the side of the playing area?

In this article I'll go over what you can do to minimize your risk of getting injured, so that you don't get sidelined for all or part of the season. This is a must-read for field owners and staff as well, in order to reduce the chances of one of your customers getting injured, and slapping you and your insurer with a lawsuit.

Having been injured by a fall twice in one year while playing Paintball (with one of those injuries requiring knee surgery), this is a topic that's personally important to me. There are a lot of hazards on any given Paintball field, and often we don't realize what they are until someone's lying on the ground in pain.

Know the Dangers

The following are some severe hazards that are all around us when we play, but may not be that obvious:

1) Trip Hazards: This category covers jagged rocks sticking out from the ground, gopher holes, tree stumps, and exposed tree roots. Trip on one of these, and slamming your kneecap or elbow into the ground is a real possibility. So is a head injury/concussion, if you fall onto another one of these hazards nearby.

2) Slip/Fall Hazards: In this category I classify ladders and staircases covered in paint (or water from a recent rainfall), and steep drops. When you approach one of these hazards, always plan for the worst, and be very careful!

3) Puncture Hazards: Included in this category are exposed rusted nails and metal brackets on structures/shacks, sharp wood splinters on cheap bunkers, and broken branches with a sharp end. It's amazing how many "punji spikes" can unwittingly be lying around your local field, especially if the builders were lazy about removing cleared brush and branches, and left them on the spot to dry and get hard. If you play Paintball regularly, then it's only a matter of time until you get sliced or poked by something, and it's in your best interests to have your Tetanus shot updated often to prevent an infection.

4) Visual-Environmental Hazards: Anything on the field that can limit your vision, be it fog, darkness at night games, or smoke machines and darkness at indoor fields, is a HUGE hazard. If some punks shot out the overhead lights at a field and they don't get replaced, or if your lens is so fogged up you can't even see 3 feet in front of you, you're going to miss that drop or other trip hazard!

5) Equipment Hazards: This final category covers the hazards caused by a player's own equipment, either by design or by using it improperly. I'm talking one-point slings worn around the neck instead of across the chest, an HPA tank at risk of injuring your spine if you ever slip and fall backwards onto it, or the risk of tripping and falling face-first into your heavy metal marker, knocking out your own front teeth.

Tips to Minimize the Risks

It's important to understand that no matter how careful you are, there are always going to be risks involved when playing Paintball, whether you're participating in an indoor or outdoor game. However, these risks can be minimized if you use your head and prepare for them in advance. Here are some suggestions for playing (and still having fun) while reducing your chances of getting hurt:

Wear proper footwear for the woods

This is my number one recommendation for staying safe. By wearing proper footwear for playing fast and loose in the woods, you can avoid sprains and other common minor injuries. Well-made tactical or hiking boots with proper ankle support, good arch support, and a rugged sole will help stave off ankle sprains and dislocations, and help prevent slips. For a more in-depth look at what constitutes proper footwear for Woodsball, refer to my Grey Ops Boot Week posts from August 2010.

Wear protective pads over areas at risk

Obviously you can't pick up a spare set of knees at the MILSIG store (and even if you could they'd be out of stock half the time anyway), so it's a damn good idea to protect your knees with tactical-grade pads. I say "tactical-grade" because if you're going to trip on an exposed tree root and come down full-force on your kneecaps, you don't want just some plain ol' volleyball knee pads or foam inserts in your BDU pants cushioning the fall. Get something with hard plastic caps over foam to absorb a good chunk of the impact.

Usually I don't recommend paying top dollar for real deal military equipment in Paintball, but in this case when it comes to the safety of one of the most important joints in your body, Chinese Airsoft knock-off products just won't do! Pay twice the price if you have to, and get authentic Blackhawk! or Alta knee pads.

Buy the cheap crap, and you risk the strap ripping or Velcro coming undone at the exact moment you really need it not to.

Tactical-grade elbow pads are also a good idea if you're the type of player who likes to quickly go prone. But at the very least, PAD THOSE KNEES!

Don't neglect padding your groin either, as quickly going prone onto a solid rock or falling forward onto gravel can be costly lessons in this department. Refer to this article for a full discussion of protecting your jewels!

Wear gloves

I know they get sweaty and hard to take off, and mess with your dexterity, but gloves are a MUST if you're a serious Woodsballer. Whether you're dropping to a prone position, or propping yourself up against a wooden bunker, your hands are going to be touching some pretty abrasive surfaces. And in an emergency, like during a fall, your hands may have to help cushion your entire body weight from the ground. Not to mention that beat-up hands full of calluses, cuts, and scabs aren't exactly a hit with the ladies!

There are all sorts of fancy tactical gloves out there, but a simple, cheap pair of Mechanix gloves in black or coyote brown look great, while providing good protection to your hands. If you really need some dexterity for fine work, snip off the tips of the thumb and index finger on one or both gloves.

Walk the field before playing

It's a really good idea to get to the field early, and take a look around the playing areas for possible hazards. If I'd had a chance to do this before my major injury, I would've noticed the 4-foot drop ahead that couldn't be seen from my team's side. Live and learn!

Light your way

If the lighting sucks during a night game or at your indoor field, then bring your own! Nowadays most Paintball markers sold for Woodsball or Milsim play feature Picatinny rails for accessories, and you can head over to Deal Extreme to pick up cheap LED lights, mounts, and pressure switches for a decent tac-light setup.

Of course, the downside of using a tactical light in the dark is that opposing players can see the light, and shoot at it in an attempt to hit you. To avoid this, strobe your light quickly to light the way ahead and check for hazards, then move into that area, repeating every few seconds as necessary. This is a better alternative to leaving your light on constantly and being an easy target.

Refuse to play on dangerous fields

If after walking the field, or from previous experience, you can clearly see that a certain field is dangerous and presents a lot of hazards, simply refuse to play on that particular field at the Paintball park. Make sure the owner or manager of the park is in the know as to why you've decided to sit that round out, so that they realize what the problem is and they're given a chance to make it right.

Stay fit

Not only has regular exercise been shown to prolong your life, it can also help you prevent being injured. Stronger muscles can brace a joint better to avoid falling. Stronger muscles also lead to stronger tendons and ligaments, which are more resistant to sprains and ruptures. Having more endurance means not tiring out as easily either, so you aren't dragging your feet and risking a trip, or reacting slowly to avoid or recover from a hazard. It also bears mention that if you lose some extra fat weight, you won't fall as hard if the worst should happen.

Engaging in fitness training for as few as 2 sessions a week can still have a major impact on keeping you injury-free in Paintball, and in life in general.

Lighten your loadout

Do you really need that 88ci HPA tank, when a 48ci would do for the amount of paint that you shoot? Does your A-5 really need those 15 pounds of extra steel accessories that are all flash and no function? Do you really need to carry a gigantic Gatling gun mod into battle with 2 gigantic air tanks on your back to power it, when for all practical purposes a BT TM-7 holds the same firepower? Do you really need to carry a case of paint worth of pods on your person, when you only tend to shoot a few hundred rounds before lunch break? The answer to most of these questions is most likely no.

If Paintball is all for show to you, then that's fine. But if you're serious about winning games and being an effective player for your team, then strive to be as lean and mean as possible. The byproduct of this philosophy is added safety. With less crap to weigh you down, get caught on something as you run into a bunker, or make you lose your balance and topple over after a trip or slip, you lessen the risk of getting hurt.

Use Anti-Fog Products

It stands to reason that if you want to prepare for and avoid hazards, first you have to know that they're there. If your goggle lens is fogged up to the point that you feel like you're driving in a blizzard, every blind step is a potential disaster.

The way to avoid this situation in the first place is to use a good anti-fog product on your lens before you start playing. There's a lot of crap on the market, and the old adage that you get what you pay for definitely applies in this case. So my personal recommendation is to steer clear of the $5 bottles of fog spray garbage, and invest in a high-priced, high-quality anti-fog solution like FogDoc or Fog Tech to preserve your vision on the field.

Play Speedball

I know that Grey Ops is a Milsim Paintball blog, and that this article is geared towards Woodsballers and Milsim players, but I'm being serious here. Speedball is a lot safer than playing in the woods when it comes to hazards, simply because most of them are eliminated by the design of the game, and the playing surface. Simply put, if you like shooting Paintball guns at other people in a competitive environment, but are fed up of getting injured and re-injured, maybe Speedball is a good idea. Back players especially don't have to move much, so a fall or other injury is a VERY remote possibility.

I know personally that if I ever get hurt playing Woodsball again to the point of requiring surgery, I'll be Craigslisting my entire gear inventory and going the AstroTurf route for my own safety. If that happens, stay tuned to Grey Ops for Mike's Rant of the Month on BPS caps, and how Dye's 2012 apparel line isn't Agg enough!

Is it worth it?

Certainly, field owners and staff have to perform due dilligence when it comes to hazards on their fields. But in large part your safety lies in your own hands, and if you make stupid choices, you'll have to live with the consequences of those choices.

Consider too that a lot of players in Woodsball, especially on the Milsim side, are fit young guys interested in pursuing careers in physical jobs like the military or law enforcement. If you're one of them, and you make a bad choice that ends up with you hurting yourself badly enough, that door may close on you for good (or set your plans back months or years while you recover).

So ask yourself, "Is it worth it?" If there's no tournament money or trophy on the line, is that dash for the flag across hazardous rocky ground worth the risk? Is it worth it to sprint up that slimey wooden staircase to bunker 2 guys in the tower up top? This is a question that every player has to answer for him/herself, with their adrenaline going and the game on the line. One thing's for sure though: When the day comes that you DO get injured pulling a risky move, you'll probably say to yourself that it WASN'T worth it.

So be careful out there! Realize the potential hazards, take precautions to protect yourself, and most importantly, use your head!

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