Former Mosinee athlete, UW professor addresses brain trauma in new book about youth sports

Wausau Daily Herald

June 25, 2021

MADISON – She was studying athletic training at the University of Wisconsin-Madison when she met the athlete who would change the trajectory of her career.

Now a 34-year-old assistant professor at UW-Madison’s Department of Kinesiology, Mosinee native Julie Stamm was an undergraduate then, in the midst of the clinical portion of her studies — working with a high school football team, getting hands-on training in treating athletic injuries.

“We had a lot of concussions that fall, probably seven or eight just in preseason camp,” Stamm said.

One teen’s injury was unusual. His concussion “didn’t seem that bad to start with, but he just didn’t get better in the time I was in the rotation, and I was there through December, maybe three months,” Stamm said. “Here was this kid who just wanted to play sports with his friends. He wasn’t an all-star. And this disrupted his schooling, his friendships, his ability to play sports. It had such a big impact on his life.”

The case would inspire Stamm. She continued her education, moved to study concussions in sports with some of the leading experts in the world at Boston University, earning a doctorate in anatomy and neurobiology from BU’s School of Medicine in 2015. And now she’s written a book that delves into the impact repetitive brain trauma has on young athletes, aiming to provide accessible, science-based information that parents can use to help determine the safety of youth sports.

Her book, “The Brain on Youth Sports: The Science, The Myths and The Future,” published by Rowman & Littlefield, will be released on July 6. In it, Stamm delves into myths, bad arguments and the propaganda revolving around concussions and brain trauma, and offers up suggestions for people who want to make sports as safe as possible.

“I love sports and think all kids should have the opportunity to play, but I do not believe it is in the best interest of children’s long-term health to experience unnecessary brain trauma in the pursuit of those sports,” she writes early on in “The Brain on Youth Sports.”

Stamm cares so much about limiting the adverse effects of brain injuries in youth sports because sports made her who she is today.

She played volleyball, basketball and softball in high school, and she spent hours watching the Green Bay Packers play on Sundays with her family. (She will admit she’s a Dolphins fan, though). “Sports were life, really. You know, small town,” Stamm said. “Every weekend was full. Summer days were camps and leagues. There were few days that went by without sports being involved.”

Stamm — she was Julie Sasse back then — was also a smart, curious learner. She was interested in health care, learning more about how the human body worked and sports. Athletic training covered all those interests.

But a drive to find out more, dig deeper into the science of sports-related brain trauma, drove her to climb up the academic ladder and go deep into the research. She studied at Boston University and its Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center, the world leader in CTE studies. Her mentor there was Robert Stern, the director of clinical research for the CTE Center.

The brain goes through various stages of development as a person matures, and a key one happens between the ages of 8 and 12. Stamm advocates eliminating hits and tackles during that time period, and limiting hits after athletes grow into their teens.

It’s not all about concussions. Repeated jarring from impacts that don’t cause concussions can cause smaller, less noticeable injuries to the brain which can adversely affect a child’s brain development and lead to more problems as an athlete grows older.

A brain subjected to that jarring as a child “can still function well for many years, but (that) brain is at a disadvantage with degenerative changes from either normal aging or disease,” Stamm wrote in “The Brain on Youth Sports.”

Stamm uses the book to go into detail about making changes in various sports — including hockey, lacrosse, soccer, rugby and football — addressing tackling techniques and limiting contact times.

“It’s possible to protect the brain and become a great athlete,” she wrote.

Stamm concludes the book by offering parents information to consider as they make decisions regarding children and sports. It starts with knowledge.

“I’ve seen what CTE can do to a person. I’ve seen the fear in the eyes of former athletes of all ages who are concerned their symptoms are from repetitive impacts in sports and are fearful of what their future holds,” she concludes. “I don’t want that to happen to any child who just wants to play a sport they love with their friends.”

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