Youth sports can be hazardous to your child's health
The other day the NFL agreed to allow doctors not on individual teams’ payrolls to evaluate and monitor player concussions, as evidence mounts that traumatic brain injuries do long-term damage, that the NFL for years has underestimated that damage, and that this misunderestimation takes place at all levels of all sports, right down to the bitty, barely formed-cranium level. The numbers on youth sports injuries are so stark, sometimes it makes letting your kids play video games all day, every day, seem like the better option.
For good reason, concussions and other youth sports injuries are getting more attention, particularly as it’s clear that parents and coaches, most of them not being physicians or medical personnel, are pretty adept at self-misdiagnosing them. For example, one study out of Canada this year found that most parents and coaches believe you have to lose consciousness to suffer a concussion (you don’t), and that hockey players at the youth level suffer 2.8 concussions per 1,000 player ice-hours. Also, this year Washington became the first state to require a youth player diagnosed with a concussion to get medical clearance before returning to action. That law was inspired by 13-year-old Zackery Lystedt, who got a concussion after a hard football hit, went back in the game, got hit again, got another concussion, and spent 30 days in coma.
The reason the NFL (and other leagues) are taking so much heat about concussions is because of players who, not wanting to buck years of tradition or lose their job, come back too soon after suffering such an injury. The video below shows then-Chicago Blackhawk Martin Havlat taking a vicious hit from Detroit’s Niklas Kronwall in game three of their NHL playoff series last year. Rather than being dead, Havlat came back to play game four. Great for hockey, terrible for Havlat, who someday will be drooling in a cup from the damage he suffered in whatever number concussion this was.
One major survey found a rapid increase in youth sports injuries that coincided with the rapid increase in the obesity rate, with the report’s authors, American Sports Data, surmising that’s because more kids are getting into more intense organized activities at earlier ages. A study released recently by the American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons counted a current annual count of 3.5 million sports injuries for athletes younger than 14, with half of those injuries coming from another subject of great concern — overuse injuries, another result of kids specializing in a single sport at an early age.
In my mind, that number isn’t just about kids (and/or their parents) pushing for that elusive college scholarship or pro career. It’s also about a family building its entire social life and network around youth sports. I know of people (I won’t say who they are to protect the guilty) who were told, after their teenaged son suffer two concussions in hockey (the first one, his coach sent him back on the ice, even after he blacked out and threw up), their doctor told them to get him off the ice immediately if they ever wanted their son to go to college. Given the family had traveled all over the country and establishing themselves as Hockey Parents since their son was 5, they were hesitant to follow that advice — and didn’t. Their son, a bright kid, ended up barely graduating high school. Oh, and he played lacrosse, too — just the sport for someone with a history of head injuries.
Of course, you don’t have to be a hardcore travel sports parent to feel the pressure of coming back quickly from injury. There seems to be something primal as an athlete that doesn’t let you easily accepting being hurt. My then-11-year-old son last year sprained his right foot in the third quarter of his final basketball game of the year. I had to carry him off the court. Yet in the fourth quarter, my son, not the most competitive person I’ve ever known, asked if he could get back in the game. I said, uh, no. Later, when we went to the urgent care center to confirm the sprain, my son (right, waiting to go to his X-ray) made sure to tell everyone he misdirected the shot taken right before he landed on the shooter’s foot.
On the fifth- and sixth-grade team I’m coaching now. I have two kids who are asthmatic. I have to instruct the referee and the boys’ mothers to jump in if they see anything wrong, because I tell the kids to raise their hands if they’re hurting, but I’m not sure they will. One of the boys, for whatever reason, never told me he was asthmatic. I learned only in a quarter break when he went to throw up. The other boy is growing more intense with every game, and doesn’t want to get off the floor.
So, in that sense, they are no different than the 30 of 160 players who told The Associated Press in a survey that they have downplayed the effects of a concussion.
In light of all this, what are we supposed to do to prevent sports injuries? The first thing to do might be to make sure we never get the idea we can make sports injury-free, and that we can make athletes recover as long as the rest of us do when we get hurt. Accidents will happen, and athletes will want to play. It appears the best efforts are to see where we can best mitigate risk, and protect athletes from themselves. The efforts on concussions are good places to start, as well as the growing awareness of how single-sport specialization causes injury.
But perhaps on a youth level, the strongest message needs to be made to the coaches and parents that the child playing is not a million-dollar athlete, or even a potential one. Above all else, you need to protect children, so when they’re hurt, you treat them like normal people, not like pieces of athletic meat. If it means you lose a game, if it means you lose a chance at a scholarship (assuming the child ever had one), so be it.
Maybe I’m the weirdo, but I think children are better served, mentally and physically, exploring all sorts of different activities, sports and elsewhere. Some kids do find their niche early, and that’s great. But you also have to be a parent and let your child get exposed to other things just in case that niche isn’t going to work out. At least pro athletes who suffer injuries have team-paid medical care and their million-dollar contracts to fall back on. Generally, your child does not.