Question: Playing through pain was the way we did things when I was a kid. It defined us as men. We paraded our toughness with pride. Nowadays everyone seems overprotective. I played youth football myself. Am I supposed to wrap my child up in bubble wrap? I survived. Why shouldn’t he?
Discussion: In the past we participated in youth sports somewhat blindly, assuming that the full contact in football or hockey, and repeated heading of the ball in soccer, had no lasting physical impact on children. Manliness or toughness in general was defined as an ability to play through pain. Our heroes were players who sacrificed their bodies to the altar of victory.
Today we are armed with a plethora of scientific knowledge that has turned that mythology on its head. Your child is not heroic because he takes another snap after having his “bell wrung.” He’s at risk, and there may be far-reaching, long-term consequences. If you let him play through such an injury, you are seen by even-keeled folk not so much as the proud parent of a warrior child, but as one who willfully puts his child in harm’s way.
What we know about concussions and overuse injuries today has redefined the way we look at tenacity and toughness in youth sports. With all the information out there about the long-term effects of concussions and certain serious joint injuries (like torn ACLs), we have become wiser about potential problems.
One can argue that all this information has also made us nervous, anxious, and perhaps overly protective. Sports inherently involve contact. Kids will always be banging into each other when they play. We cannot avoid contact in youth sports, but we can certainly be much more proactive about injury prevention, now that we are armed with so much detailed information about the nature of injuries.
It’s important to realize that we often romanticize the past. The following are three comments we hear all too often:
1. “That’s not the way I was taught.”
2. “That’s not the way I played the game.”
3. “That’s not the way it’s played by the pros.”
Such attitudes may cloud our vision. Few people knew better when we were children, and the pros we watch on television are adults, not kids. Their bodies and brains are fully formed. They can handle a level of strain and stress that children cannot. When kids play adult versions of sports like hockey and football, they check hard and tackle each other the way the pros do. On YouTube you can watch videos of eight- and nine year-old kids engaged in full-impact helmet-to-helmet clashes, egged on by cheering parents. “ese adults may get their thrillswatching little kids do what the pros do and boast about their tykes’ toughness, but they must be oblivious to the damage these actions may be doing to their children’s developing brains and bodies.
Solution: We have to ask ourselves point-blank: Is the risk worth the outcome? There is enough information available now to clarify what the risks are. There are also alternative ways children can learn and play games like football and hockey that are safer than the adult-centric version we learned back in the day. To be clear, we are not suggesting you take your child out of organized football or hockey if he is at the right age and developmental stage to play. And we don’t advocate being “soft” with kids. They’ll get bumps, scrapes, and bruises when they play sports. That’s fine. It’s expected. But there are ways to teach kids the fundamentals of certain sports without endangering their bodies and brains. These sports do not have to be taught or played the way they were when we were children. There is a clear distinction between soft and safe. We have good information now on the dangers of certain activities, and the responsible thing is to err on the side of caution.
Mainstream youth sports organizations have finally begun to adjust the way kids play sports—given the deluge of research data on head injuries in sports. The stubbornly old-school mind-set about toughness is being replaced by a more cautious, pragmatic approach. In 2011, USA Hockey eliminated body checking in their twelve-and-under youth divisions. And starting in 2012, Pop Warner football (the nation’s largest youth football league) set limits on the frequency of full-contact practice drills. Even some Division I college football programs have cut down on contact drills in practices. A Red Bulls youth soccer coach we spoke with says he no longer incorporates full-on header practice in his youth training programs. When he does teach heading techniques, he uses NERF or beach balls. That way kids can avoid the severe headaches that can come from the repeated heading of regulation-size soccer balls during practice drills.
Much more needs to be done to make sports safer for our kids, but to begin with, we have to become more aware of the dangers. In their seminal book Concussions and Our Kids: America’s Leading Expert on How to Protect Young Athletes and Keep Sports Safe, Dr. Robert Cantu and coauthor Mark Hyman focus on what has become a veritable epidemic in youth sports: the prevalence of concussions. “Concussions happen to all types of athletes—young and old, boys and girls, and in every conceivable sport,” Cantu warns. “[They occur] when an athlete is slammed and makes sudden and forceful contact. That contact can be with the ground, court or pool deck. It can also be with a batted ball, a thrown ball, a kicked ball, a goalpost (football), the boards (hockey), the scorer’s table (basketball), and of course another player.” Parents should arm themselves with information about sports safety, from books like Cantu’s, so that they can both be proactive in keeping their children out of harm’s way and know precisely what to do to protect and help them recover quickly and fully, should they suffer a head trauma. ♦
From Kim John Payne, Luis Fernando Llosa, & Scott Lancaster. Beyond Winnning: Smart Parenting in a Toxic Sports Environment (Lyons Press, Connecticut, 2013)