How Is Concussion Awareness Affecting Youth Sports?

By Eric Braun

Concussion AwarenessWhen I was a kid, I’m pretty sure that my coaches did not have to take online concussion training, and not just because there was no such thing as online. If we got hurt, we were usually told to “walk it off”—even if it was a head injury.

But these days, learning to recognize the signs and symptoms of concussions and what to do if a player suffers a head injury are basic training for youth coaches. And the truth is, even though I may have been annoyed by the extra hoop to jump through, I’ve had to administer the test a handful of times over the past few years, even in baseball, which statistically is the sport where kids are least likely to suffer a concussion.

Concussion awareness has spiked in the past few years, due in part to lawsuits brought against the NFL by former players, increased research, and an awareness campaign done by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). In 2012, Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide three years after retiring, shooting himself in the chest so that scientists could study his brain and how it was affected by the multitude of violent hits it took. Last year, the NFL admitted that it expects nearly a third of retired players to develop long-term cognitive problems due to the violence of the sport. And just a few months ago, 49ers linebacker Chris Borland announced his retirement from football after only one year in the league, saying that his health “is a little more important” than money.

It’s not only football that’s dangerous. According to a study by the CDC and the NFL, high school football players suffer concussions at a rate of 11.2 per 1,000 exposures (practices or games). The concussion rate in boys lacrosse was 6.9 per 1,000 exposures, and for wrestlers, it was 6.2. For girls soccer it was 6.7, and for girls basketball it was 5.6. (You can read the whole report here.)

Parents are taking notice. Emergency room visits for head injuries in kids and teens jumped from 150,000 in 2001 to 250,000 in 2009. According to this ESPN story, participation in youth football dropped by 9.5 percent between 2010 and 2012. But according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, participation in the sport rose again in the 2013–2014 year.

Perhaps the changes are just a natural fluctuation and can’t be connected to concussion awareness. According to this Associated Press story, nearly half of parents are uncomfortable with their child playing football. The same percentage was uncomfortable with ice hockey, and 45 percent were uncomfortable with wrestling. But, only 5 percent of parents surveyed said they have discouraged their child from participating.

So what do we do when our beloved children beg to play a sport we know is dangerous? More and more parents are saying no. Douglas W. Green, Ed.D., advises us to steer them to track and field or other less dangerous sports. Knowing what we know, that’s clearly the best advice. But, not all kids will be so easily swayed. At least delaying the start of a high-impact sport until high school or college can help a lot. Research shows that concussions become less likely the older a player is.

If your child does play a high-impact sport, pay attention to how practices and games are run. Ask coaches what they are doing to keep kids safe from brain injuries. And keep learning—all any of us can do is stay informed and make the best decisions for our families.

Minneapolis writer Eric BraunEric Braun is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor with two sports-loving sons.

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