Opinion: The concussion risks of youth contact sports are real, but the rewards are great

Des Moines Register (Des Moines, IA)

October 5, 2021

“Put me back in, coach.” That’s what my son said after taking an elbow to the face in an aggressive soccer match.

As a father of two young boys and a sports medicine physician specializing in concussion, I am often asked, “Would you allow your boys to play football?” But the larger question may be, “Are youth contact sports too risky?” With the emerging evidence of the cumulative burden of multiple concussions on athletes, and the examples of the acute effect of severe concussion, this is a fair question for a parent to ask.

Football is the sport that gets the headlines, but there is inherent risk of injury in all contact sports. When we allow our children to play these sports, we know they could be severely injured. This is not an insignificant risk. However, a larger risk exists if our sons and daughters are not allowed to participate. There are enormous benefits from team sports. Athletes learn leadership, respect, teamwork, and how to deal with adversity. Nothing can quite teach these values better than team sports, many of which are the same contact sports that carry risk of injury.

Throughout the past decade, a lot has been done to mitigate risk in sport. In football, education around safe tackling technique and rules against spear tackling and targeting have helped. Clubs are spending more years in flag/soft shell helmet play developing skills before adding contact. In soccer, there are rules against heading the ball in lower levels. We spend less hours hitting in practice and have made other meaningful accommodations to reduce risk of injury. This will not eliminate risk entirely; nothing can. Our duty as parents, coaches, and administrators is to provide the safest possible environment for children to experience the power of team sport. Our duty as physicians is to educate, research, and provide the best possible evidence-based management of injuries when they occur.

I let my two boys decide. They knew playing football came with elevated risk; they knew other sports had risk as well. They chose soccer. I see them get hit and fall hard. I worry about them. But I see their coaches teaching and caring for them. I watch my boys learn to win and lose. I watch them enjoy the benefits of physical activity. I watch them develop into young men with values and skills I could not have taught them alone.

Because of my profession, I uniquely understand the full potential of that risk. For some, playing sports has resulted in serious injury. Many more have applied their experience with sport and injury to their life and careers in positive ways. We should be careful, but we shouldn’t swaddle our children in bubble wrap. Balance between precautions, safe play, education, science, and love for my sons allows me to feel safer and more confident when they say, “Let me play, dad

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