Concussions and other injuries have become major barriers for participation in youth sports. It’s important for programs to embrace preventative policies that minimize risk.
Challenge //   Safety concerns among parents
Among the many issues facing youth sports, injury risks trouble parents the most. The espnW/Aspen Institute Project Play survey showed that 9 out of 10 parents have safety concerns — and half of those describe safety as a major concern. Both mothers and fathers said that concussions are the most worrisome and one-quarter of parents have considered keeping a child from playing because of that. Football, by far, gave parents the most cause for concern.(53)
Their worries are understandable. Football has the highest rate of concussion in high school sports,(54) and it’s up there with hockey at the youth level.(55) Players as young as age 7 take head hits akin to a car crash: in excess of 80 g’s, according to Virginia Tech researchers. Most hits are milder, but brains at that age are developing. Kids’ necks are weak and their heads are large relative to the rest of their body. Kids also suffer longer than adults do from concussions, and may never fully recover.
Football is not the only sport with challenges, and concussion is not the only safety issue that leaders need to address. Parents want their children in venues that provide both physical and emotional safety,(56) free of bullying and all forms of abuse. While pre-participation exams cannot detect every risk factor — such as congenital narrowing of the spinal cord that can place a child at greater risk of paralysis — they need to be as comprehensive as possible, covering cardiac and joint issues, and conducted by qualified health professionals. These evaluations are especially important for children from low-income families as that may be the only time a child interacts with the health-care system all year.
CONCUSSION RISKS ARE NOW A BARRIER TO PARTICIPATION
Still, concussion has emerged as the most formidable of safety-related barriers to participation. One in five parents is most concerned about soccer, in which the concussion rate is twice that for girls than boys. But the unease has also spilled into lacrosse, field hockey, basketball, snowboarding, skiing, and other sports. Every three minutes, a child is seen in an emergency room for a sports-related concussion.(57) No less unnerving is the discovery that the repetitive, smaller, undetected impacts athletes endure, called sub-concussive blows,(58) also may impair brain function.
In 2014, President Obama hosted the first-ever White House summit on youth sports concussions, where much of the focus was on identifying and treating brain injuries. The conversation needs to shift to prevention strategies. Youth sport organizations should err on the side of caution — and ultimately participation — and embrace policies that eliminate or greatly reduce head contact at the 12-and-under level. Rules changes have been shown to lower injury rates, the National Academy of Sciences has noted.(59) In 2018, the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program hosted a conversation on the Future of Football, leading to a white paper recommending that flag be the standard way of playing the game until age 14 (WATCH/READ).
Parents need to know that sports will produce a positive health outcome. And children deserve nothing less.
Health, Safety Protections Are Lacking
Youth coaches who say they are trained in key areas
Dave Roberts on KEEPING KIDS SAFE
5 ways to identify if your athlete is at risk for an overuse injury
Learn more in this one-pager created for Project Play by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.
Find resources to prevent abuse (physical, emotional, sexual) in youth coaching at the US Center for SafeSport.
2015 PROJECT PLAY SUMMIT
Emphasize Prevention: AN INTRODUCTION
Moderator: Jim Whitehead, Executive Vice President/CEO, American College of Sports Medicine
Panelists: Dr. Robert Cantu, Clinical Professor of Neurosurgery, Boston University School of Medicine; Jayne Greenberg, District Director of Physical Education and Health Literacy, Miami-Dade County (FL) Public Schools; Nancy Hogshead-Makar, CEO, Champion Women; Stephen Levin, Councilmember, New York City Council
2016 PROJECT PLAY SUMMIT
How Much Science Do We Need to Act?
Moderator: Mark Hyman, Professor, George Washington University
Panelists: Kevin Bienick, Research Fellow, Mayo Clinic; Kate Carr, President and CEO, SafeKids Worldwide; Dr. Sam Gandy, Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry, Mount Sinai; Dr. Gerard Giaoia, Division Chief, Neuropsychology, Children’s National Health System; Dr. Bennet Omalu, Chief Medical Examiner, San Joaquin County (CA) and Professor, University of California-Davis
2017 PROJECT PLAY SUMMIT
Preventing Abuse — In All Its Forms
Moderator: Mike Wise, Senior Write/Columnist, The Undefeated
Panelists: Rick Ankiel, Author, former MLB player; Nekia Kemp, Executive Director, Police Athletic League of Buffalo; Shellie Pfohl, CEO, US Center for SafeSport; Dr. David Satcher, Former US Surgeon General, Co-Chair of National Council on Youth Sports Safety
2018 PROJECT PLAY SUMMIT
WHAT NEXT FOR THE U.S. OLYMPIC MOVEMENT?
Moderator: Tom Farrey, Executive Director, Sports & Society Program, The Aspen Institute
Panelists: Alan Ashley, Chief of Sport Performance, U.S. Olympic Committee; Donna de Varona, Olympic Gold Medalist Swimmer; Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, CEO, Laureus Sports for Good Foundation
"I would ban heading. Because it hurts. I don’t think it's necessary before age 14, at all."
Julie Foudy, former captain of the U.S. national soccer team
The Aspen Institute recognizes select organizations that take new, specific, meaningful action aligned with each play. Learn how to be a Project Play Champion.
Research is driving the agenda in the area of safety, prompting critical rules changes. In 2012, after Virginia Tech published results of its study measuring head impacts, the national office of the oldest youth football organization, Pop Warner, restricted contact drills to no more than one-third of practice time, its first-ever limit placed on teams. Later research found the limit reduced head impacts by half — to 158 per player for the season. If all youth football programs across the United States honor that limit, it could prevent as many as 150 million head hits a year among the more than 1 million children who play, according to researcher Stefan Duma.(60)