Sports Injuries: Young and Foolish

youth-footballBefore you think of us as overly refined pinky lifters, let it be known that we played rough and tumble when baseballs needed to be covered with friction tape, and the only head protection in the fall was attached to your scalp. B-ball entailed a fruit basket nailed to a telephone pole, dribbling in spite of the traffic, and using a ball borrowed when the high school coach wasn’t looking. Much can be learned from the sage counsel of a city-grown sandlot kid who survived the 1960‘s. Today, these activities are organized and supervised, right down to the altercations (which, in those good old days, were occasional blood-letting rituals). Youth sports build character. We learned that playing in high school and college.

The reasons for playing sports haven’t changed since the 1960’s, or the 40’s or the aught-5’s, as mentioned in a Canadian-American study done a few years ago (Gould, 2009). Here they are: to have fun (a term crying for definition beyond the inference that comes from observation), to improve old skills and to learn new ones, to be with your buddies, to get excited about things you might not be able to control, to succeed (read win), and to become physically fit (you can argue this as a primary or secondary goal), plus whatever else you can add.

In organized kids’ sports programs, the differences between youth and professional models of the sport occasionally—maybe even too often—get hazy. Professional sports have goals linked to entertainment and money. In pro sports, players are chattel to be bought, sold and traded. Even Willie Mays (to be admired for his character as much as for his basket catch) commented on being traded by the Giants late in his career,”All they seem to care about is what you did for them yesterday and what you can do for them tomorrow.” (Smith, 2002)

The pro’s job is to win. Professional managers don’t get extra credit for developing character. Those who lose file papers with the State at the end of the season…or sooner. The developmental model of sports has a different vision that is apparent in its name—development.  Despite the historical attribution, Vince Lombardi didn’t say that winning is the only thing. He said that striving to win is. This is where some coaches err in the management of youth teams, regardless of the sport. Popularity of a coach extends beyond the feelings of his or her players and their loyalty. The athletic director and board of education look for wins. Mom and dad look for playing time. The community expects to be proud. Even Sparky Anderson prefers that we ask our kids to compete for fun instead of building adult egos (Smith, 2002). Our kids need not be tokens in a board game of organized sports, where dad coaches may lack the training needed to teach the proper technique peculiar to that sport, and are even less versed in the area of physical and emotional development.

Our focus here is on football, the game where collisions are required by etiquette, where you run full speed into a wall, where injury at a young age can threaten the future of life and limb and mind so much so that Dr. Pietro Tonino of Loyola University’s Department of Orthopedic Surgery wants parents to ban football for their kids (Tonino, 2004). In the battle of Mack truck against VW Beetle, the winner is predetermined and the loser is headed for the body shop. Knee injuries, ankle sprains, shoulder and various overuse injuries are among the most commonly treated. Let’s not forget the heat stroke from summer practices. Lamentable is that a small percentage of football programs have a physician at the sidelines and even fewer have athletic trainers. In almost all community programs and in most high school programs the coach is the only staffer available to handle medical problems. At game time, at least in school programs, paramedics are often on the scene.

Ligaments are the tough, fibrous rubber bands that connect bones to other bones. Yank on one of these and you get a sprain, as opposed to a strain that is more common to a tendon or a muscle that gets overstretched. Either can put a player out of commission for some time. Contact sports and those that require gripping, like tennis or golf, put people at risk for strains. Running can sprain an ankle, the commonest joint so bothered, followed by the knee and wrist.

In football, helmets have not been found to reduce concussions (McGuine, 2013), the scariest of all injuries. Improper tackling techniques, lowering the head and leading with the head, cause serious head and neck injuries, regardless of helmet quality. In concussion, consciousness may be lost for a brief time, but changes in mental status, confusion and even amnesia are characteristic. Disorientation is common. About one in five high school football players will experience a concussion—or worse— in their short career (Langburt, 2001). Although lasting neurological problems may be unusual, the symptoms of post-concussion syndrome can last for months, and the danger of a second concussion is increased. There are no seatbelts in football…or soccer, or boxing, or hockey… After the first one, the second concussion should be prevented at all costs for someone who doesn’t get paid for playing.

During his rookie year with the Kansas City Chiefs, Hall of Fame linebacker Willie Lanier dove to make a tackle and was kneed in the head, suffering a concussion and a brain bleed. After that he never dropped his head to make a tackle. Helmet ramming as a tackling maneuver needs to halt.

There’s a movement to teach heads-up tackling, which looks more like a dance than the knee-pumping, arm-swinging, tripping and shoving match that tackling is. Keeping the head up and avoiding contact with the top of the helmet might not be the most effective way to drop an opponent, but it helps to address the “spearing” that has caused death among high school players. Youth sports need to be devoid of a professional modeling regimen, especially where kids are affected by a system that rewards only the most talented and capable and ignores those most in need of teaching and coaching.  While there’s no nice way to tackle someone, kids don’t have to start at the age of four. Few adults know that the NFL is being sued by more than 4,000 former players who claim that the league lied about, and covered up, evidence that football can cause long-term cognitive damage (Takeaway, 2013) (Hayes/CNN, 2011). After all, football is a demolition derby.

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