There are plenty of misguided words of advice in the youth athletics world:
“No pain, no gain.”
“Suck it up.”
“Play through the pain.”
“Shake it off.”
We like to instill toughness and perseverance in our children. Phrases like these have been echoed in locker rooms and on playing fields throughout the history of organized sports. But over the past few decades, we have gained a deeper understanding of how injuries impact children and the terrible implications they can have later in life.
One of the biggest concerns in youth athletics is the impact an injury can have on the human brain. When it comes to sports-related brain injuries, the adages that are intended to “toughen up” young people could have devastating health consequences.
Brain Injuries in Sports
A traumatic brain injury (TBI) occurs from a jolt or blow to the head. These injuries can be mild or severe, but even the mildest forms of TBI could prove to have long-term repercussions on the mental and physical health of an athlete. For example, concussions are mild forms of traumatic brain injuries, yet studies suggest that the effects of a concussion, or of several concussions, are anything but mild.
Even sub concussive impacts could have lasting and irreversible effects on a person’s health. The NFL has been scrutinized by experts in the medical community for failing to address the impact of sub concussive injuries (also known as CTE) on professional football players. This scrutiny has been the focus of national press coverage and a major motion picture (yes, the one starring Will Smith).
Why Parents Are Worried About Football
Football is a logical place to begin the conversation about head injuries in the sporting world. It’s not only the most popular sport in the nation, it is also noted for being one of the most physically demanding.
Parents across the country are understandably concerned about the possibility that their child could suffer brain injuries in contact football. Yet despite these concerns, it is still the most popular sport among young males. Around 3.5 million young people play organized football in the United States. Around 1.3 million of those young people play high school football, while over 2.5 million play youth football.
The Brain Injury Research Institute found that, in a single season, up to 20 percent of football players in high school suffer a traumatic brain injury. Sixty to 70 percent of those concussions are suffered during practice. Sub concussive impacts are even more common; and the younger a player is, the more susceptible they might be to long-term effects of a head injury.
In other words, parents should be worried about the impact of all types of brain injuries in football, but there is also a risk of overlooking the many other ways that children are susceptible to serious brain injuries.
We Should Focus on More Than Just Football
Sports of all kinds present risks to children. Sports-related injuries account for up to four out of every 10 emergency room visits for children between 5 and 14 years old. More than one-fifth of all traumatic brain injuries among children and adolescents are due to sports and recreational activities. Some of these activities are more dangerous than parents realize.
For example, cycling accounts for nearly double the number of head injuries as football among children 14 and younger. Baseball, softball, basketball, skateboarding and winter sports also cause thousands of head injuries among young people every year. The rate of brain injuries has also been increasing. Since 2001, the number of children treated in emergency rooms for sports-related head injuries has increased by over 90 percent in the United States.
Even sports not commonly associated with head injuries have seen surges in these types of incidents. Closed head injuries and concussions in youth soccer have increased by nearly 1,600 percent from 1990 to 2014.
We Shouldn’t Apply Adult Standards for Young Athletes
There are many reasons for the increase in head injuries among children and young adults. Participation in sports has increased, as has our ability to recognize and test young people for these injuries. But another significant factor is the fact that we expect young people to perform at levels comparable to those of older, more developed athletes.
Young athletes devote much of their time to specializing in one sport or playing several sports at the same time. Some young athletes might be involved in some form of athletics on a year-round basis. This rigorous schedule could lead to what medical professionals call “overuse injuries,” which could impact the physical development of a young person.
In some cases, younger athletes are subjected to even harsher conditions than professionals. For example, we mentioned earlier that most concussions among young football players occur in practice. In the NFL, only 3 percent of concussions occur during practice because the NFL limits the amount of contact in non-game situations, while many programs overseeing youth sports don’t apply the same limitations.
Experts are quick to point out that when a young person experiences pain while playing a sport, they should never attempt to “power through” that pain. If there is a warning sign of an injury, adults should immediately take the child out of a game or practice, especially since children may not be aware of the extent to which they are injured.
It is up to adults – coaches, governing bodies, parents, etc. – to look after the interests of young athletes. Pushing our kids to accomplish more and instilling toughness is a good thing, but adults should be mindful of the fact that, when it comes to sports-related injuries, the long-term health of children is the most important priority.
Children love sports, and they enjoy many benefits from participating in team activities. Playing sports can teach children leadership, work ethic, cooperation and, yes, even toughness. But there is a big difference between pushing children to reach their potential and putting them in a position where that potential is forever curbed by an unnecessary sports-related injury.