Making Informed Decisions About Youth Participation in Sports

Concussions are frightening experiences both to those who experience them and their loved ones, and concussions can cause long-term cognitive and emotional damage. How high would the risk of concussion need to be before you would tell your son he couldn’t try out for the football team, or your daughter that she couldn’t play on the high school soccer team? Do you know what the risk of concussion is for each of those sports?

According to a recent press release from the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), there are more than 300,000 sports-related concussions in the U.S. each year, and the likelihood of experiencing a concussion while playing a contact sport is as high as 19%. Despite the substantial risk of athletes experiencing a concussion, a Harris poll commissioned by the AOA finds that parents are divided on whether or not the risk of concussion influences their decision to let their children participate in youth sports.

A slight majority, 51%, of parents surveyed indicate that the risk of concussion does not lead them to make any restrictions about their children participating in youth athletics. Of this set of parents, 60% said that they believed the benefits of sports, such as learning teamwork, developing self-esteem, and fostering physical health, outweigh any risk of concussion.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, 16% of the 1,188 parents surveyed do not allow their children to participate in any organized athletics due to the risk of concussions.

The remaining one third of parents, 33%, allow their kids to participate in sports, but place restrictions on which sports their children may play. Pollsters queried this set of parents about which sports they would allow their children to play, with the following results:

Sport Percent of Parents Who Would Allow Children to Participate
Basketball 66%
Baseball 63%
Soccer 57%
Gymnastics 47%
Cheerleading 36%
Wrestling 18%
Football 18%
Lacrosse 17%
Field Hockey 16%
Hockey 12%
Rugby 6%

In allowing their children to participate in sports, but restricting them from playing those sports they perceive as presenting the greatest danger of concussions, these parents are trying to be pragmatic and practical in balancing the benefits and risks of sports participation, and their children’s desires.

But to what degree do the parents’ perceptions of risk reflect the actual risks involved in each sport? Of this group of parents, 57% view soccer as a sport with a low enough risk of concussion to allow their children to participate in it, while only 18% view football as being that safe. But are children really at a much greater risk of experiencing a concussion while playing football than while playing soccer?

The surprising answer to that question is “No.” Girls, in particular, playing soccer are at a higher risk for concussion than boys playing football. This was the result found in a recent study presented at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons by Wellington Hsu, MD and professor of orthopaedics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. That study confirmed the results of earlier studies from 2000, 2007, and 2011 that are summarized in a report by Women’s Sports Safety Initiative.

Parents are trying to make the best decisions for their kids’ health and happiness, but when it comes to sports and concussions, most parents are making decisions without adequate information. In fact, a survey conducted by Harris Poll for the Women’s Sports Safety Initiative indicates that only 29% of adult Americans believe “they know all they need to know” about concussions, a majority of Americans want to learn more about concussions, and 75% of parents with children under 18 worry about concussions when their children play sports.

This lack of information poses a particular danger for girls, according to the same survey. Young female athletes experience a higher rate of concussion in sports than young male athletes, but 79% of people are unaware that boys do not suffer a higher rate of concussions than girls. Female athletes also take longer to recover from a concussion than male athletes, but 87% of those surveyed were unaware of this fact.

Parents not only want, but need, more information and guidelines related to the risks of concussions in youth athletics and the measures that can reduce those risks and speed recovery. Because, as Former California Assembly Member Mary Hayashi points out, “Young people understandably cannot imagine themselves ever being old or experiencing the challenges posed by a loss of their cognitive abilities. That is why it is crucial for the adults charged with protecting the health and well-being of young people to make safeguarding their brain function a top priority.”

And given the elevated risks that young female athletes face, it is important that not only parents, but everyone involved in overseeing organized sports for girls to be well informed. “Concussions in all student-athletes remain a major concern,” Hayashi explains, “but it is clear that our female student-athletes, their families, doctors, trainers, and coaches need better guidelines to help them recognize, and manage concussions. We also need better resources and that requires new research into women’s concussions to further understanding of why concussions occur at a higher rate in female athletes than male athletes, and how we can better protect female athletes from this hazard.”

There is no way, of course, to let a kid be a kid and be able to guarantee 100% that child’s safety. But parents are constantly required to engage in risk management on behalf of their children, and the more information they have, and the better quality of information they have, the better they will be able to make decisions that both reduce the risks to which the child is exposed and promote the child’s personal growth.

Sources:

American Osteopathic Association. Concussion Concerns Influence Whether Parents Allow Children to Play Sports. Retrieved April 17, 2017, from
http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/concussion-concerns-influence-whether-parents-allow-children-to-play-sports-300437190.html

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Female Soccer Players Suffer the Most Concussions in High School Sports. March 14, 2017. Retrieved from
http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/female-soccer-players-suffer-the-most-concussions-in-high-school-sports-300422632.html

Women’s Sports Safety Initiative. Sports Related Concussions: Changing the game for women and sports. Retrieved March 6, 2017, from https://womenssportssafety.com/wp-content/uploads/WSSI-Report-FINAL.pdf

Women’s Sports Safety Initiative. Sports-Related Concussion Resource Guide. Retrieved March 23, 2017, from
https://womenssportssafety.com/sports-related-womens-concussion-resource-guide/

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