Concussions and Risk of Youth Sports

Over at the Wall Street Journal, Sue Shellenbarger put up a thoughtful post about the risk of youth sports, playing through injuries, and growing evidence of brain abnormalities in professional athletes:

fewer than 50% of athletes understand the problems that can arise from concussions, says an article this month in the journal “Pediatrics”. In a study of high-school teams in Minnesota, the article says, 69% of players who lost consciousness and 81% of those who sustained a concussion returned to play the same day, contrary to sound medical practice. The article recommends increased step-by-step, individualized monitoring of players who sustain blows to the head.

This issue poses some tough tradeoffs for parents. On many teams, off-the-field practices by trainers and coaches have improved in recent years. On the other hand, competition has intensified in all youth sports, and kids still get mixed messages as parents call from the sidelines, “Shake it off!” or “Play through the pain!”

Heads Up Concussion - CDCWe talked about concussions in youth sports a year ago. Many parents and coaches don’t know the warning signs to look for and put kids back in games when they really should be resting. Every coach should put this wallet card in their first aid kit.

Going back to the post above, be sure to read some of the comments. It’s an interesting and wide ranging discussion. One of the funnier comments (yet very true) was this:

Having played rugby, football and other sports and endured a dozen or so concussions (along with multiple broken bones, it is funny that most of my injuries came from pick-up basketball, car accidents and bicycling. There is risk everywhere. Properly protected and properly played; most of the most violent contact sports do not really have that much higher of a risk of injury than the ones we consider “safe”. It seems to me as football equipment got better, more kids started to learn to lead with their heads. You saw it a lot less back in the 70s. And even less in rugby where you do not have a hat! We were taught in football and rugby to get your head to the side; not lead with it. Now cheerleading; I would never do that!!! Too dangerous. AND I have daughters that do it!

Emphasis mine. That’s funny – but very true if they’re a stunt team.

We can’t protect our kids from everything, but we certainly can get informed as parents and coaches. Coaches need to make sure they communicate with parents about any suspected injuries and parents should do the same so coaches know to keep an eye out.

Note you can order free concussion information kits from the CDC. I may order the stickers or wallet cards for our coaches.

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  1. An old school soccer sage was putting some of us old men through our paces a year or so ago. He had an interesting perspective on risk to kids.

    In his opinion youth players would be better off playing without shin guards. Kids should not be going in so hard that shin guards are needed in practice, but rather they should be developing the skill to win the ball without a hard challenge. So shin guards would maybe be game day only equipment, or not used at all if the other teams are like minded.

    But as for youth heading the ball, he said there has simply been too many studies since his playing days that suggest it may be a bad idea. He would err on the side of caution and not have young players head the ball. There is just too much at risk, to take that risk; compared to brain damage, a broken leg is nothing.

    In my view, heading is one of the easiest soccer skills to develop and can be left a later age. The only reason to develop it at a young age is for a team’s competitive success. But that’s probably a little too much to give to the team.

    My own son has been heading the ball since about age 10, so my fingers are crossed. In club practices he generally does not use shin guards anymore (they play skillfully) but in High School practices he does use shin guards.

  2. The heading debate is interesting. The problem with the studies are that they generally revolve around adults or professionals who have headed the ball all the time. I’d love to see numerous studies done that followed kids through to adulthood that tracked brain development and function and was there an impact in, say, the teenage years and beyond among youth soccer players. Like you, my son heads the ball in matches. 99% of the time it is not in a direct challenge to another player (but that will come as he gets older) Is there a risk? Yes. But there’s also the risk of him getting kicked in the head or hitting his head on a goal post.

    As for shin guards? It’s not just a broken leg, but a shattered leg. I would never let kids play without them. I agree 100%, it’s a great way to get them to not go in so hard and use more skill. BUT – all it takes is one overzealous kid and you’d have a severe injury. They finally instituted rules here in NC that allowed refs to card the bench if a player was on the field without proper shinguards because kids were using cardboard. Way too dangerous.

    Another interesting part of any study would be is it just the general concussion of a header? Or is it those done improperly? Or head to head collisions.

    Oh and the main thing that bothers me? Match balls that are rock hard. I’ve seen WAY too many matches where kids will outright REFUSE to head a ball in an away match because the balls are overinflated. Most referees try to ensure there is some give, but not always. So coaches – ALWAYS make sure your soccer balls have some give and aren’t hard as a rock.