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Chris Henry, and why your football-playing child may already have brain damage

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GREEN BAY, WI - SEPTEMBER 20: Wide receiver Ch...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

Chris Henry was a talented wide receiver, but he was far better known for almost single-handedly giving the Cincinnati Bengals the reputation as criminals thanks to his numerous arrests. When Henry died during the 2009 season after falling off the back of a moving pickup truck — on which he had jumped during a fight with his fiancee, who was driving — it appeared to be a tragic but not unexpected end for someone who just couldn’t control himself.

Now it appears there was a reason Henry was out of control: His brain was  knotted and beaten up from repeated blows to the head, according to researchers.

At age 26, he already showed signs of progressive generative disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE. From the June 28 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Julian Bailes and Bennet Omalu, with the Brain Injury Research Institute in Morgantown, W.Va., have examined 10 other retired players, among them ex-Steelers Mike Webster, Terry Long and Justin Strzelzcyk. The researchers found frightful similarities between those brains and that of Mr. Henry. Those men were older than Mr. Henry and had taken thousands of blows to the helmet during long football careers. …

“It didn’t look like the brain of a 26-year-old,” said Dr. Omalu, a former Allegheny County pathologist who first found CTE in an autopsy of Mr. Long in September 2005.

“This is not something to celebrate. It is not something to be joyful about. It is something that is very humbling, very introspective. It is a call to action.

“I’m not calling for the eradication of football; no, I’m asking for full disclosure to the players. Like the surgeon general considers smoking to be dangerous to your health, repeated impacts of the brain are dangerous to your health and will affect you later in life. Period. The players need to know this.

“I think it’s an epidemic. It’s beneath the radar. We simply didn’t identify it [early and properly]. The more I encounter NFL players, the more I realize … it is much more prevalent than we had identified.”

For all the laudable attention on ensuring that children are promptly identified and treated for concussions, the implications of this look at Henry means that brain damage among football players is more extensive and pervasive than we could have ever dreamed. Despite not having reached 30, Henry’s brain, and the dementia he was likely suffering, were much like that seen in an 80-to-90-year-old.

So what do we do with this information? Ban football? Take the head out of the game? There are some serious questions to be answered, because who knows how many high schoolers, having played since age 6 or 7, are already on their way to serious brain damage.

One thing the doctors in Henry’s case recommend is genetic testing, because there is one gene that is common to all the players they’ve examined who have suffered extensive damage: Apolipoprotein E, which is found in roughly 25 percent of the general population. APOE is considered one of the biggest genetic risk factors for development of Alzheimer’s Disease. Does that mean every baby should be tested for APOE, and if found positive, should never play a sport with a high risk of head injury?

I don’t know. But I do know I’m feeling even better about my kids having no interest in playing football.

When a Little Leaguer has cancer

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This story out of Haverstraw, N.Y., about an 8-year-old Little Leaguer with leukemia brought back from strong memories for me, because two years ago I was managing a team of kids around that age in a similar, difficult situation. From the Journal News in White Plains, N.Y.:

Sean DePatto ran onto the Haverstraw Little League field Friday with the energy one might expect from an 8-year-old ballplayer.

But what impressed the parents, coaches and players before the Haverstraw Devil Rays took on the Haverstraw Phillies Friday night was that Sean ran out onto the field after rushing back from Manhattan, where he had just undergone six hours of chemotherapy. …

Like the manager of the Haverstraw Devil Rays, I knew before my 2008 season of managing the 8- and 9-year-old Cyclones softball team in Oak Lawn, Ill., that one of my returning players would be recovering from leukemia. That’s because the girl, Olivia, lived just down the block and was good friends with my daughter, Grace.

In midsummer 2007, soon after my then-8-year-old daughter’s first softball season, my first as an assistant coach, and after Grace and Olivia had both played in their league all-star game, Olivia was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia.  Her mother feared the worst when she noticed Olivia’s lethargy and an unusual amount of bruising on her legs. Olivia’s family was told that while the five-year survival rate was 80 percent, it would take two-and-a-half years of treatment, including intense chemotherapy, before she would be back to anything resembling normal.

When we told Grace about Olivia’s sickness, we didn’t use the c-word, cancer. With the prognosis for recovery good, we didn’t want to scare her that she would possibly be losing a friend. Later, Grace came home from a visit to Olivia’s house (often the visits were brief because of Olivia’s lack of energy, a combination of the leukemia and the therapy) and asked us if we knew Olivia had cancer.

As adults, you get worried about how your child is going to take bad news from you. It never occurs to you that their fellow child will deliver it, and do so in a way that’s a lot less scary than your tiptoeing around.

It got to the point that, at least as far as Grace and Olivia were concerned, her disease and treatment routine became a matter-of-fact kind of thing — to them, anyway. For us adults, Olivia’s ability to handle so much struggle with so much ease was much more amazing. Olivia’s hospital gave her an award for her courage in the face of leukemia and all it entails. Then again, Olivia had never shown herself to shirk away from trouble. Grace and Olivia first met at age 3, when as her parents walked her down the block after just moving in, Grace — who then as now towers over Olivia — put up her dukes and chirped, “You wanna play fight?” Olivia didn’t say yes — but she didn’t back away, either.

When her hospital gave Olivia the award, the press release that came with it said that because of exhaustion, she could have to curtail her favorite activities, such as dance and riding her scooter.

Softball wasn’t mentioned, but as the 2008 season approached, I, as manager that year, fully expected Olivia not to play, even though her parents had signed her up the previous October, quite an act of positive thinking only a few months after her diagnosis. Olivia’s mother told me she would miss pre-season practices because of an especially intense round of treatment, but that she would be available for games. I went overboard emphasizing that it was up to her and Olivia, and that I wanted her guidance on what Olivia could handle. She said she would give it to me, and that, by the way, she’d also like to be the snack parent again this year.

I also explained to the team and the league what was going on with Olivia. With the team, as my wife and I were with Grace when we first learned of Olivia’s diagnosis, I was more circumspect about the c-word. I explained that Olivia had been sick and was getting treatment, and that they shouldn’t be surprised about Olivia’s lack of hair. Instead of a visor, Olivia would wear a cap given to the managers and coaches that her mother cut up and sewed so it would fit her head. As an added touch, she colored the white lettering on the black cap green so it would match the color of the lettering of the black visors worn by her fellow Cyclones.

Unlike Sean DePatto’s teammates in Haverstraw, neither my girls (nor their coaches) shaved their heads in support. That’s a great idea, and I thought about whether to suggest it. However, I figured that might be a lot to ask to a group of girls, particularly on a team which had members going through their Catholic First Communion during the season. Plus, I got the sense that the last thing Olivia wanted was attention as the Sick Girl, and having a team full of bald heads would only make that more plain.

Unlike Sean DePatto, Olivia by this point was well enough to go to school. But I think this statement by Sean’s mother, Kim, applies to Olivia as well, or any sick children who, if they don’t understand how serious their illness might be, understand the frustration of being told you can’t do your favorite things, and the determination to be able to do them again: “For him to be able to participate with the baseball team is giving him such a rush … It really makes a tremendous difference for him.”

I did not realize until the season was close to the end that Olivia sometimes would come straight to the game from, say, a spinal tap. All I knew was, Olivia, except for her jury-rigged cap, looked no different from the girl who played the previous year. Between her small stature and her quick bat, she was a tough out. And she again was one of our best pitchers. She could pitch two straight innings without getting frustrated or distracted, even if she got herself into a jam.

The only signs of Sick Girl were when the brother of an opposing team member tried to rip off her hat, and my constant asking of Olivia whether she was all right, which I asked so often she probably wondered whether something was wrong with me.

Otherwise, she ran with her teammates, played catch with her teammates, and sang the same interminable cheers that softball girls appear to know without anyone ever having taught them. I chose Olivia as one of our team’s all-star representatives because she was one of our best players. (In the picture to the upper right is Olivia, on the left, and Grace on the right.)

Sean DePatto’s coaches and teammates say that they are all better for having had Sean on the team, and I can say the same thing about myself and Olivia’s fellow Cyclones. I’m not sure how those girls will remember the experience. Maybe it’s because Grace and myself knew Olivia long before she got sick, or maybe it was her own determination to play well no matter what. But I don’t recall any overly emotional moments related to her being ill. All I remember is a kid who played hard on a team I had fun managing. I suspect in later years Grace will crystallize and share with my wife and I more of her own memories, and that they will probably have a lot more to do with the one-on-one time she spent with Olivia at her house during the worst of her therapy and illness, and not so much about the softball.

The next year, Grace and Olivia moved up an age group in their league, and they ended up on different teams. I switched to managing my son’s T-ball team, leaving Grace’s softball training in much more capable hands. Olivia ended her treatments for leukemia and is cancer-free. She also got back her head of hair. In 2010, she’s not playing softball, favoring instead theater and dance — as well as making videos with Grace, like the iCarly-inspired piece below.

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And, in case her old hospital would like to know, when Olivia comes over to see Grace, she’s riding her scooter.

Knee injuries and girls: lessons from my 10-year-old daughter

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I’m no physician, but I feel like I’ve become a little bit of an expert on noncontact athletic knee injuries suffered by girls. That’s because today, for the second time since February, I took my 10-year-old daughter to the doctor because she had sprained her left knee playing basketball. In that sense, I am becoming an expert in girls’ knees the same way I became an expert in the cars I drove in high school: because the same parts kept breaking down.

Tomorrow I take my daughter to her first appointment with an orthopedist, who will find out (hopefully) exactly why this same knee keeps getting hurt. In the short term, I know she’s worried about getting well before her softball league games start April 27 (and given the frantic messages I’ve gotten from her coach, he’s worried about it, too — hey, it’s my kid and my blog, so I can brag!), and so she can get back to her musical theater rehearsals. (Once she got her crutches today, she spent most of the afternoon walking around with them outside, fighting my entreaties to get back in and rest her knee.)

However, my wife and I are more worried that someday she’s going to need more than crutches and Ace bandages to take care of that left knee. Hence, why I’m planning on asking the orthopedist about any physical therapy or structural problems that might be causing my daughter to hurt that same knee.

As anyone who has watched women’s college basketball and its high knee-brace content knows, female athlete knees are more susceptible to injury than those of their male counterparts. Without using phrases like “narrow femoral arch,” researchers believe there are physical reasons why this happens. In particular, girls and women are more at risk of tearing their anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), especially after puberty. The ACL connects the femur and the tibia behind the kneecap, which is why when that sucker gets torn, you see athletes writing in so much pain. ACL injuries are commonly caused without contact, through twisting or jumping. Each time my daughter got hurt, she reported feeling pain after jumping.

I’ve become enough of an Internet expert on girls’ knee injuries to know that a common reason jumping is a problem is because of how many girls land. Mainly, the problem is that girls are more likely to jump with their knees pointed together, creating more stress on them upon landing. Do that enough times, and the ACL starts to tear, and when it tears enough, it pops. And when it pops — the pain!

We’ll find out at the orthopedist whether this is the root of my daughter’s problem, particularly because she noticed the pain after a jump, with no contact from anyone else. If the orthopedist doesn’t check that, I might have to break out my Internet Expert’s License and tell him. Although, technically, I don’t know for sure that it’s the ACL. It seems like it, given her complaints of pain under the kneecap, although I don’t know if that’s why her left kneecap seemed to move a lot more, and disturbingly, freely than the right when her pediatrician manipulated it today.

I might be a budding Internet expert, but that only will take me so far in trying to ensure my 10-year-old daughter isn’t having major knee surgery by age 13. Eventually, I was able to afford to buy cars that allowed me not to learn so much about how they fail. Hopefully, my daughter is on the road to allowing me to spend less time becoming an expert in how girls’ knees fail.

California softball star's suicide stuns her community

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Whenever I see stories of high-achieving people inexplicably killing themselves, I think of two people: Richard Cory, and Kathy Ormsby.

From the Orange County Register:

Nadia Brianne Matthews [known as "Bri"] had a glowing future.

The sophomore star softball pitcher at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana had verbally committed to play for the University of Arizona, and had a sense of confidence, grace and warmth that went beyond her 16 years, friends say.

Her suicide Thursday at her Anaheim home has shocked and devastated relatives, friends and teachers and coaches who saw in her amazing talent and promise – a nice girl who could put a smile on anyone’s face. …

The coroner Friday afternoon ruled the manner of death suicide, “by ligature hanging.” …

[Nadia] Martinez said her daughter had a 4.0 GPA and had dreams of becoming a neonatologist.

One of the most awful things about suicide is it often comes with no warning. Bri’s family will probably never be able to answer the question, why?

The reason I think of Richard Cory is because he is the title character of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s 1897 poem about a beautiful, tragic figure. I remember reading this poem in grade school, and it hit me pretty hard and has always stuck with me, maybe it’s because it’s the first work that opened my eyes to the idea that you never quite knew what was going on inside the heads and hearts of those who seemed to be well. The last line, which comes out of nowhere, symbolizes the shock anyone feels when a loved one commits suicide — even for me, when I had a friend kill himself at 15, a friend who gave ample warning (what I considered ample — others did not ) of what he was going to do.

The poem, in its entirety:

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king,
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

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You might recall Simon & Garfunkel’s rewrite of Richard Cory.

The reason I think of Kathy Ormsby because I was in attendance at the 1986 NCAA track and field championships in Indianapolis — the event where the North Carolina State 10,000-meter runner split from the track mid-race to jump off a bridge over the nearby White River in an attempt to kill herself.

Instead, she was left paralyzed from just above the waist down. A lot of coverage at the time focused on how Ormsby, a high school valedictorian and premed student, was extremely driven and put a ton of pressure on herself to succeed, with the implication that might somehow have been behind her suicide attempt. From the New York Times, circa 1986:

Mitch Shoffner, the head of the social studies department at the high school, taught her world history and coached her in volleyball in the 10th grade.

”I know that she’s always driven herself very, very hard,” he said. ”She’s not the type of person who can accept second best for herself. If there’s any pressure, Kathy was putting it on herself. She’s always been very much of a perfectionist.”

Later, Ormsby did cite fear of failing her coaches and parents as to why she tried to kill herself.

”One time, I got on the volleyball team for not practicing hard enough, and she broke down and cried. Most of the girls just got mad. She was very, very serious about everything she did.”

Later, Ormsby indeed did cite fear of failing her coaches and parents as to why she tried to kill herself, and in later interviews said she had a panic attack and never intended to kill herself. (Ormsby is now an occupational therapist in Wilmington, N.C. — I believe her photo is the top one on the blog post here.)

Do Richard Cory or Kathy Ormsby give any indication as to why Bri Matthews, who seemingly had the world at her feet, decided she could no longer live? No. But they’re all unfortunate examples that suicide, and whatever is behind it, can affect seemingly the most successful among us.

Volleyball-chucking coach Eric Maxwell doesn't get why he's so, so wrong

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This here blog on Jan. 6 posted the video of Southern Regional High School (Manahawkin, N.J.) always-intense volleyball coach Eric Maxwell going nuts during a game after a player committed the sin of not hitting the ball before it reached the floor, going nuts in the form of whipping a volleyball fastball on her head. Alas, in a tribute to the lack of pull this here blog has (for now), it took Deadspin.com posting the video Feb. 1 before Maxwell and his school bothered to respond to questions like, why is this guy still coaching?

Maxwell defended his action (which occurred in October 2009) to the Press of Atlantic City (one of the best newspapers of its size in covering youth sports issues, in my opinion), as did a few other school officials, who I think were afraid they would get brained with a volleyball if they didn’t tell the world what a great guy Maxwell is.

Maxwell claimed he wasn’t trying to hit a player, and that everything with his team was hunky-dory a few hours after the incident, which got him booted out of the game. Maxwell said he apologized to the player, and wrote a letter of apology to his team members and their parents. A signal that Mr. Intensity (“he patrols up and down the sidelines …. with the fury of a drill sergeant, sayeth the Star-Ledger of Newark) wasn’t looking at this as a lesson to dial things down came when he said he didn’t apologize to anyone else because he “wasn’t going to put out little fires.”

“You see a short clip like that, but no one knows what preceded it. I’m not condoning my behavior in getting upset and yelling at a referee, but my intent was to throw it off the wall. It certainly looks like I threw it at her,” he said.

Hey, sarge, it doesn’t matter whether you were TRYING to throw it at her. You shouldn’t have been chucking the ball in the first place. How do you expect your team to be calm and controlled when you have zero mastery over your own temper? Unless you were firing a ball at a person who had entered the gym carrying an assault rifle, I can’t think of “what preceded” your action that made it excusable.

Then again, sarge, you do have employers who make excuses for you.

Southern Regional School District Superintendant Craig Henry said Monday afternoon that the incident was an anomaly and completely out of character for Maxwell.

Apparently Henry never reads the Star-Ledger.

“This coach is a faith-based individual and he is moved to emotion every time it comes up. He’s a class act in everything he does,” Henry said.

A faith-based individual? What does that have to do with anything? Richard Reid, Baruch Goldstein and Eric Rudolph were faith-based individuals moved to emotion, too, and no one wants them coaching their volleyball team. The point is not that Maxwell is a religious nut bent to kill, but that it’s maddening how people are ready to explain away any action because, hey, the guy’s got the Jesus! By the way, I would love to hear the superintendent’s explanation of how Maxwell was a class act in whizzing that volleyball across the floor.

Hey, teachers at Southern Regional High, you now have permission to chuck objects at your students, as long as you’re a faith-based individual and you say you were aiming for the wall! (Well, Maxwell is on one-year probation, according to the superintendent, so there might be a teensy-weensy consequence, at least if your tantrum gets on YouTube.)

At least athletic director Kim DeGraw-Cole said throwing the ball, no matter what Maxwell tried to hit, was wrong.

“The fact that the ball hit one of his players that he cares about and coaches is embarrassing. He took the proper steps before we took action,” DeGraw-Cole said. “It wouldn’t matter if he threw the ball at the wall, it wouldn’t be appropriate. No one felt worse than he did.”

I don’t know, Ms. DeGraw-Cole. I bet that girl who got a ball off the head felt pretty damn bad.

Youth sports is a pain in the back

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And not just in parents who have to lug equipment or sit for long stretches on hard, backless bleachers.

The American Journal of Sports Medicine has published a study finding that teen athletes are at much greater risk for lower back pain than their more sedentary peers — especially if those teens have played sports since they were very young.

According to the study’s findings, 71.1% of the teenagers who were highly active in sports reported experiencing at least one bout of lower back pain in their lives compared to 61.8% of the moderately active students and 50% of the students who never played organized sports.

Nearly 15% of the highly competitive athletes noted back pain that was accompanied with pain and numbness in the legs compared to 8.5% of the moderately active athletes and 4% of the non-athletes.

Roughly 10% of the highly active students said that they missed a day of school because of their back pain in comparison to 5.7% of the moderately active students and 4.4% of the students who never played youth sports.

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The most common sport for lower back pain? Volleyball. Least common? Soccer.

The study’s authors strongly advised they were not implying that teenagers should quit sports. Instead, they recommended more research and awareness on postures and positions that would prevent back pain. However, with the risk of back pain, concussions, overuse injuries, and so many other aches and pains suffered by children in high-level youth sports, somewhere a kid playing video games is saying, “Feeling great here!”

Written by rkcookjr

February 1, 2010 at 10:57 pm

Top youth sports stories of the year, part II (the final five)

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First, an apology. When I posted stories Nos. 10-6 for the top 10 youth sports stories of the year, I wrote that the next day, I would post No. 5-1. The first post went up Dec. 28. No second post Dec. 29. Or Dec. 30. Or Dec. 31. Or Jan. 1. I should know better than to promise on a schedule.

I presumed that news on the youth sports beat would be slow (it wasn’t), and that somehow having four kids home on winter vacation would be less than hectic (it wasn’t). Also, I was a tad late getting back from my 1o-year-old daughter’s basketball game today. I was accosted by an angry mother, the same one who tried to rush me at the bench once before, who wanted to know, in my role as a coach, if I knew what the fuck I was doing.

Actually, it was a bit entertaining, her screaming and swearing at me on the walk in front of our gym, as other parents and children stopped in their tracks to watch the entertainment (I, not she, got this view because I was facing the parking lot). Early on, the mom’s boyfriend implored her to get into the car (they had someplace they had to be), but then he turned on another guy when he started yelling at the mom to shut up. Fortunately, no riot ensued, although I wasn’t sure for a minute.

Without getting into all the details about her dispute — mainly, it was about how I was treating her son, the team’s best player and admittedly its biggest hothead — I will say that by the time the director of the basketball program rushed out in 5-degree weather to check out what was going on (he was called out by a dad from my team, who thankfully threw in that I was a nice guy), the conversation had turned civil. The mom just wanted to get her piece out, and she was willing to listen when I explained why I did what I did, that the point of this league wasn’t winning today, and that I hoped I was preparing her son for a leadership role on his school team. Or maybe she was freezing cold and couldn’t summon the energy anymore. I had two advantages: my Upper Peninsula of Michigan blood, and a much warmer coat. Maybe Mike Leach could have learned a little something, no?

So now, here I am, safe at home, no one yelling at me (yet), so I’ll take a few minutes to sum up the top five youth sports stories of the year.

5. Girls, girls, girls

Nearly 40 years after the passage of Title IX, requiring schools receiving public money to offer equal opportunities (in sports and elsewhere) to boys and girls, we’re still fighting about what that means. The most notable cases were in Indiana and Florida. The Indiana High School Athletic Association folded quickly, and correctly, when a lawsuit was filed on behalf of a 14-year-old girl who wanted to try out for her high school baseball team, but was told state rules required her to play the “equal” sports of girls’ softball. She didn’t make the team, but of course that wasn’t the point.

By the way, with no litigation involved Emily Montgomery of Vincennes (Ind.) Rivet played left field for the school’s baseball team, which made it to the Class A state final before losing. Montgomery also played in the Class A state finals for girls’ basketball, too. Her brother asked her to join the baseball team for a practical reason — the school has only 92 students and otherwise would have had only 10 members.

Meanwhile, in Florida, things were a little more contentious.

A lawsuit filed by lead attorney Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a former Olympic swimmer, fought the state high school athletic association’s scheduling cuts to all sports except football and cheerleading, in the name of saving money as the state’s property tax collections went south with the housing market (which was no longer coming south). The lawsuit alleged Title IX violations because the cuts were not made equally. Originally, the Florida High School Athletic Association said they were, because, get this, football officially is a coed sport. Hey, just because only three girls out of 36,000 players are on rosters isn’t because chicks aren’t invited! (And you can’t cut cheerleading, because if you have football, you gotta have cheerleaders.)

Dutifully embarrassed, the FHSAA dropped the football-as-coed-sport nonsense and stopped the statewide cuts. Although, speaking of cuts, that brings us to our No. 4 story…

4. The economy’s effect on youth sports

Florida was one of multiple states that looked at cutting sports schedules statewide as a means of saving money. Although few did, a lot of cuts happened at the local level, most famously in Grove City, Ohio, where all extracurricular activities were cut after voters multiple times rejected tax increases (and then came back when they finally approved one). Schools nationwide implemented pay-to-play programs, meaning students were charged a fee when they previously were not in order to play sports.

However, the down economy did not necessarily mean that fewer children were playing. In fact, many cities nationwide were building large youth sports facilities in hopes of attracting tournaments that could fill up local hotels and restaurants, and fill up tax coffers hurting from the closing of the local plant.

3. 100-0

Dallas Morning News reporter Barry Horn happened to look at his newspaper’s girls’ basketball box scores and noticed something unusual: Covenant School 100, Dallas Academy 0. So he did a nice little story about Dallas Academy, a private school geared toward kids with learning disabilities, and one that has had athletic success. About 663,000 first-day page views later, 100-0 was a Rorschach test about sportsmanship. Did Covenant coach Micah Grimes run up the score by playing pressing defense for too long? Or was Dallas Academy responsible for preparing a team well enough so it didn’t get smoked 100-0? (Complicating matters was that Dallas Academy often was portrayed as a team of Special Olympians, when in fact the disabilities ran to the likes of ADHD and dyslexia.)

Blowout scores are endemic to girls’ basketball, where the quality of talent, coaching and commitment vary widely from school to school in comparison to boys’ sports. But all the bad publicity about 100-0, and Grimes’ public statement against his school’s apology for it, led to the coach’s firing in January, two weeks after the game. Meaning, Mike Leach was not the only Texas coach in 2009 to get canned after refusing to apologize.

A post-script: in December, Dallas Academy got its first victory since 2001-02, aided by a new team member who scored 31 of its 34 points in a 34-33 triumph. Another post-script: Dallas Academy also dropped out of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, meaning that Covenant was no longer forced to face it in association play.

2. The trial of David Jason Stinson

Stinson was indicted last January in Louisville, Ky., on reckless homicide charges after one his Pleasure Ridge Park High School football players, 15-year-old Max Gilpin, collapsed and died in an August 2008 practice. Gilpin was ruled to have died from overheating, and Stinson (by then the former Pleasure Ridge Park coach) became what was believed to be the first coach in the nation to face criminal charges for a player’s practice- or game-related death.

Youth and school coaches nationwide watched Stinson’s case closely (and some did more than that, contributing to his legal defense fund) for fear that they could be next if something terrible happened on their watch. After all, the case against Stinson was built mainly on him making his players run “gassers” at the end of a practice in 94-degree heat-index weather, and Stinson’s bluster that he was going to keep his team running until somebody quit, and his allegedly denying players water. Sounds harsh, but it also sounds like what 90 percent of coaches have done at some point.

It turned out that it took the jury only 90 minutes to acquit Stinson, in part because of evidence Gilpin took Adderall and creatine, both of which can cause quicker dehydration. (A civil suit filed by Gilpin’s parents, however, is still in play.) Still, his case, if nothing else, got a lot of coaches and authorities to take heat and dehydration more seriously, including in Kentucky, where the state legislature beefed up rules on access to trainers and handling sports in the heat.

But even despite the tragedy of a teenager’s death, Stinson and Gilpin didn’t turn out to be the top youth sports story of the year, or even the top youth sports-related health issue of the year. That honor goes to…

1. Concussions

No longer is a player who gets a little foggy someone who is “dinged.” From pro leagues on down, concussions — brain injuries — are being taken seriously more than they ever have. Let’s put it this way: had alleged prima donna Adam James been allegedly locked in a room by his head coach, Mike Leach, because he had a bruised sternum, Leach might be coaching Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl, being played as I type this, instead of preparing his lawsuit against the school for firing him.

Washington this year became the first state to require young athletes diagnosed with concussions to get medical clearance before returning to action, and bills regarding concussion safety have been introduced in the U.S. House and Senate. It’s not just football players suffering — one girl speaking out in favor of the Senate bill is a 16-year-old who quit basketball after 11 concussions. Eleven!

Concussions aren’t just a story confined to 2009. It goes to the top spot because they will be a topic of conversation and debate for years to come. Already, there’s discussion of what the future of football will be, or how long it has one, because of the prevalance of concussions.

Also, I can’t leave this topic without acknowledging the hard work of Alan Schwarz of the New York Times, who has covered concussions thoroughly for years, and might just be single-handedly responsible for this whole conversation we’re having about them. There are going to be people who literally will owe their lives to him.

Laws sought to curb youth sports concussions

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A little slice of health reform that Hines Ward might not back: Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., on Dec. 4 announced he would sponsor legislation that would seek to fight concussions in youth sports. From The Associated Press:

The bill … would establish a grant program to states to come up with ways to prevent, diagnose and treat sports-related concussions in high schools and middle schools. It also calls for the Department of Health and Human Services to develop concussion management guidelines, including standards for athletes to return after concussions.

It’s called the Concussion Treatment and Care Tools Act, or ConTACT Act. The legislation comes as concussions among athletes at all levels has been getting a look in Congress.

Menendez is following the lead of fellow New Jersey Democrat Bill Pascrell Jr., who filed a similar bill March 5, before fighting concussions was cool. Pascrell’s bill hasn’t moved anywhere since it was referred to committee. But it does have 10 Democratic and two Republican co-sponsors, which is practically lovey-dovey bipartisanship in this day and age. And Menendez’s bill comes as there is additional pressure on the NFL over how it handles concussions, state-level legislation about youth sports concussions, and a growing sentiment that leagues at all levels have a history of underestimating long-term and short-term concussion damage.

You might even say that, in the parlance of old concussion language, the sports world has gotten its bell rung.

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A clip from the Sept. 15 episode of HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, which featured a piece on concussions in high school football. Gumbel is talking to the mother and teammates of Ryne Dougherty, who died of a brain hemmorhage after a hit on the field in October 2008. The family is suing  because Ryne had been cleared to play after two previous concussions.

Written by rkcookjr

December 4, 2009 at 6:07 pm

Youth sports can be hazardous to your child's health

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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.

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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.0405091950a

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.

Written by rkcookjr

November 24, 2009 at 1:53 pm

Parents overestimate child fitness levels, guv'nor

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Anamarie Regino

Image by cliff1066™ via Flickr

Blimey! British mums and dads are blinkered into thinking their little yobs are running about when their lazy little gits really never push their nubby fingers away from the bangers and mash.

Oh, sorry about the faux Cockney. Let me rephrase it in American: British parents believe their children are exercising more than they actually are, thus putting them at greater risk of obesity. From the Beeb, er, the BBC:

Parents have big misconceptions about the amount of exercise their children take part in, according to the British Heart Foundation (BHF).

It says 71% of parents polled believe their children are “active enough,” but only one in 10 of the children say they are doing the recommended daily amount [activity for at least 60 minutes per day]. …

The BHF questioned nearly 1,000 UK parents with children aged eight to 15. … It produced a report called Couch Kids which shows that while the number of obese children has risen since the mid-1990s, there have been no major changes in children’s physical activity levels over the past decade. …

Dr Mike Knapton, associate medical director at the BHF, said: “Mums and dads need to take the blinkers off about how active kids need to be in order to keep their hearts healthy.”

Hey, Dr. Knapton, get a period and speak in a language we all can understand!

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Jarvis Cocker also is extremely upset about the rising obesity rate in Britain.

Parents worldwide are pretty good at overestimating how healthy their little darlings are, figuring they’re Hercules when they’re more of a Klump. For example, a 2008 U.S. study found that parents of children with type 2 diabetes (the kind you’re at risk to get if you’re overweight) underestimated their child’s weight. (So did the child.)

Parents’ recognition of their child’s exercise activity and weight is like people’s opinions of Congress versus those of their own Congressmen: everyone else is bad, but my child is just fine. It doesn’t help, at least in the United States, that physical education in schools over the years has been a casualty of cuts for budgetary and academic reasons, but you could name thousands of other, legitimate societal reasons for obesity and the need for greater activity for children.

But it looks like the place to start is for parents to be the first ones to encourage more activity, whether through organized sports or no, rather than less, and to tell kids to get their arse outside. Bloody hell, I just can’t stay away from the British slang.

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