There are safe ways for kids to play youth football
With football season in full swing, news stories about concussions seem to fill the Monday morning sports pages. And for good reason. Concern is mounting about the connection between repeated concussions and the development of degenerative brain diseases like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)- the condition found on autopsy in former New England Patriots player Junior Seau.
CTE presents with dementia-like symptoms, such as memory loss, aggression, confusion and depression. Much of the worry has come from well-publicized cases of former professional football players who have suffered long-term neurological and mental health problems.
The policy statement was published online in the November edition of the journal Pediatrics. While stopping short of calling for a ban on tackling, the American Journal of Pediatrics (AAP) offered a list of changes to improve the safety of the game:
- Officials and coaches must enforce the rules of proper tackling, including zero tolerance for illegal, head-first hits;
- Players must decide whether the benefits of playing outweigh the risks of possible injury;
- Non-tackling leagues should be expanded so athletes can choose to participate without the injury risks associated with tackling;
- Skilled athletic trainers should be available on the sidelines, as evidence shows they can reduce the number of injuries for players.
In their review, the AAP implores coaches and officials to be more vigilant in maintaining a zero tolerance for head to head, or spear tackling.
The AAP recommends greater sanctions for violations, including expulsion from the game.
Falmouth pediatrician Gregory Parkinson, MD couldn’t agree more. “My personal view is that kids need to be taught not to have too much contact There needs to be a high level of surveillance and an attitude of importance, and we should be emphasizing aerobic fitness.”
There are more than 1.1 million high school football players, and approximately 250,000 participants in Pop Warner leagues across the country. Play can start as early as age five, increasing the opportunity for repeated head and neck injury over time. The concern for a lifetime accumulation of head trauma is at the center of the policy statement.
The AAP considered banning tackling or calling for a delay in the age at which it is introduced. Neither option was recommended because of the potential for unintended consequences. Investigators argued that while postponing tackling until high school would certainly decrease the risk of injury at the youth level, it might unintentionally make the situation worse when bigger, stronger bodies are tackling for the first time in high school.
“It’s this paradox,” says pediatrician Greg Landry, MD, one of the two lead authors of the new guidelines, “that makes it so important for leagues to teach proper tackling technique and skills to avoid and absorb tackles, even if no tackling occurs throughout the seasons.”
Instead, the AAP recommends better training in safe tackling techniques. Initiating contact with the shoulder while the head is up is considered to be the safest method.
Expanding non-tackling opportunities in leagues such as flag football was also endorsed. This is an idea that Dr. Parkinson supports.
“You do not need contact at an early age to be a better player later on. The emerging evidence is that too much contact is a bad thing. There should be options to participate in the game without getting hit,” he said.
He also added that neither Tom Brady nor Peyton Manning ever played youth football.
To ensure better player safety the AAP also acknowledged the importance of athletic trainers. It is recommended that they be on the field at all practice sessions and organized games. Athletic trainers provide a neutral voice when advocating for safe play. They also promote conditioning, injury prevention, and rehabilitation.
If parents of players are concerned that these guidelines will be met with skepticism from coaches, their worry may be unnecessary. Dr. Parkinson says that there has been a real increase in awareness among coaches. Most of them are quite conscious and err on the side of caution.
However, he encourages parents to be vigilant. “Ultimately parents have a responsibility to speak up if they see something that’s unsafe.
“Any time your child is part of a program where there is the potential for a head injury, know your group’s approach to safe play. Ask what the league’s policies are to protect a young brain. What are the protocols if there is a head injury? You need to have a sense that the league takes safety, and in particular brain safety, seriously. If not, then get involved and see what you can do as a volunteer.”