Rethinking youth sports to prevent kids’ head injuries

Youth sports are important. Now girls, as well as boys, have an opportunity to be physically active and learn new skills. Whether participating in an individual or group activity, sports teach children and young adults that hard work and personal discipline will help them achieve their personal best. My family and I know firsthand the benefits that sports can offer. I enjoyed playing basketball and volleyball during high school and college. My son had fun participating in soccer and swimming. My daughter scored ice time being a hockey cheerleader.

With all the positive aspects associated with youth sports, these activities also come with some very real risks. Stories of athletes suffering traumatic brain injuries after playing hockey, football, soccer and other sports are becoming more common. A traumatic brain injury is a severe blow to the head, impairing the brain’s normal functions. Symptoms can include confusion, motor dysfunction, dizziness, headaches and temporary amnesia. Repeated concussions or other head injuries could run the greater risk of damage to the brain and spinal cord. Public awareness about the seriousness of head injuries is growing. 

ADVERTISEMENT
We are already learning a lot about traumatic brain injuries from our returning Afghanistan and Iraq veterans. An estimated 40,000 men and women veterans have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries from multiple concussions in combat. While the situations are vastly different, some of the consequences of repeated head injuries sustained in combat can be similar to those experienced by some athletes.

According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS), roughly 446,788 sports-related head injuries were treated at U.S. emergency rooms in 2009. This number represents an increase of nearly 95,000 sports-related injuries from 2008. No longer can a soccer player or cyclist just “walk off” a bump to the head. A child who begins playing full-contact football at age 6 is at risk of brain injuries that could cause long-term cognitive damage. 

As parents, coaches and policymakers, we must use what we know about head injuries and rethink how our youth can engage in sports safely. Some organizations and states are already working to reform the athletic programs in their schools and communities. Last year, Minnesota passed legislation aimed at reducing sports-related brain injuries in children by educating coaches, parents and young athletes about the symptoms and risks of head injuries. The new law also ensures students do not return to a sport before seeing a trained health professional. 

Recently, the largest youth football league, Pop Warner, announced it will limit the amount of contact and collisions in practice to protect its 285,000 football players (ages 5-15) from potential repetitive brain trauma. This move responded to a recent study of second-grade football players that showed the average player suffers more than 100 head impacts during 5 games and 10 practices. Some of these head impacts were characterized as equivalent to those sustained in a car accident. 

Young players rely on coaches, parents and health professionals to minimize risk through proper practice techniques, good supervision and immediate medical intervention. Pop Warner’s move to limit contact in practice should remind governing bodies that procedures, training methods and the rules of the game can be modified to ensure our youth participate safely. 

Sports-related brain injuries are also receiving more public attention because of the willingness of professional athletes to speak out. For example, more than 2,000 retired NFL players filed a lawsuit against football helmet maker Riddell and the NFL for hiding information about dangers of concussions and the consequences of hits to the head.

Coaches, parents, athletes, health professionals, policymakers and the athletic community must come together for the best interests of our children. By taking what we already know, we can create opportunities for our children to participate in sports while keeping them healthy and safe. As a parent, watching your child compete should be a sense of pride, not a sense of fear.

McCollum represents Minnesota’s 4th congressional district. She serves on the House Appropriations and Budget committees.