Late last year, the movie Concussion dramatized the discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE [if you haven’t seen the movie yet; I recommend it]. The movie attempts to move the discussion from a football fan or football parent-driven one to a more general public discussion. As a youth recreational sports advocate, this issue hits home as parents consider whether their children should play football. Two recent magazine articles highlight the shift from a football-only audience to a wider audience:
- In the February issue of Wired magazine (and last week’s Sports Illustrated) writer Steve Rushin imagines how the game has evolved 50 years from now with a recap of Super Bowl 100 (the NFL having abandoned Roman numerals with the unwieldy Super Bowl LXXXVIII). In addition to other evolutions in the game (no kickoffs, female players, electronic first down and goal line markers), Rushin refers to the threat to football’s future CTE presents and how the NFL ‘dealt’ with it. Futuristic innovations including new materials that make helmets mend themselves, EEG capabilities built into the helmets, and an antibody to treat CTE.
- In the January/February edition of MIT Technology Review (yes, that MIT!), an article asks “Are Young Athletes Risking Brain Damage?” Referring to a study comparing retired NFL players who started playing football before and after the age of 12 and noting the intense development that occurs in children’s brains between the ages of 8 and 12; the author recommends “youth leagues should switch to flag football and ban tackling for kids under 14”.
My Hustle & Attitude philosophy advocates for safety as a key ingredient to having positive experiences in youth recreational sports. In previous posts, I have also advocated for flag football as an alternative to tackle football before high school. And, in terms of long-term player safety, I believe this is the most important issue to the future of the NFL. It’s not difficult for me to imagine Super Bowl 100 being very different from Rushin’s. A game where there is no tackling at all – essentially a seven-on-seven skill game where the players have sensors in their gloves and uniforms and play two-hand touch. Sound crazy? If an entire generation of parents discourage or don’t allow their kids to play tackle football because of long-term safety concerns…
I came across a tweet this morning from a colleague I respect, Dan Ward (@theDanWard), where he was linking to a video by another Dan I respect, Dan Pink (@DanielPink), that originally aired on PBS. The video is titled “Why You Should Always Skip Your Kids’ Baseball Games”. Interesting idea, huh. Pink’s opening statement that Mom and Dad are the problem with youth sports is aggressive. My Hustle and Attitude philosophy exists to try to make sure that youth have a positive experience in sports – and to provide recommendations/tools to help adults (parents, coaches, administrators) ensure that happens. Pink makes several points about parental behavior. However, I don’t agree that not attending your kids’ games is the answer.
- “Attending your kids’ games has become a leading indicator of parental awesomeness”. Pink correctly identifies an issue with youth sports today; i.e. adults who gain some kind of status or live vicariously through their children’s youth sports adventures. Those of us who have been around youth sports recognize the stereotypical behaviors: aggressive fathers whose athletic careers topped out at high school, soccer moms who get status among their circle of friends by having the most involved/accomplished youngster, parents who can’t understand why their little superstar isn’t playing as much as the other kids, etc. The issues here are not the parents’ attendance at the games, but the parents’ attitudes concerning their kids’ participation in youth sports. Youth sports should be about the kids – and ALL ABOUT THE KIDS. I believe that parents who understand this behave appropriately at their kids’ games – they encourage their children and they let the coaches coach and the officials officiate.
- “What really counts: the mastery of something difficult, obligation to teammates, the game itself”. Pink points out that these are the things that matter in a discussion about parents being a distraction to their kids by attending their practices and games. I think that, whether metaphorically or physically, parents should drop their kids off at practice. I recommend parents either actually drop their kids off and leave them with the coaches or that, even if they stay and watch practice, they act as if they aren’t there. As early as possible, the athletes should learn to bring their own water bottles and equipment and that during practice, they should be fully engaged with the coaches and their teammates. I think it is a mistake for the kids to be running to their parents for anything during practice. The same holds true for games – the athletes are ‘handed off’ to the coaches and the parents become cheering fans.
- “If we’re not in the stands, the kids are the story”. Excellent point about the kids being the focus. It is widely held (which is code for I can’t recall the specific source!) that a best practice for parents with respect to youth sports is to not go over or rehash the games in the car ride home. After games, the children don’t need to hear about the things that went wrong or that they need to work on – they already know…they played the game, after all. Parents should let the athletes enjoy the successes and achievements and allow the coaches to work on the areas requiring improvement.
- “Sports are bizarrely parent-centric”. What an interesting comparison between how parents behave in youth sports compared to school and other youth activities like dance or music! I had never thought of it that way before. And he has a point – maybe sports parents ought to act more like we act in other activities.
Pink’s final recommendation that parents replace their time at their kids’ practices and games with exercise is another positive one. In fact, I’ve already seen this with a couple of moms that walked around the track while their sons were engaged in football practice.
Dan Pink’s video essay correctly highlights several issues with parental involvement in youth sports today. However, I don’t think keeping parents away from their kids’ games is the answer. I believe healthy changes in attitude and perspective are the right answer. My wife and I marvel that, even today in high school activities, one of our sons at some point during the activity will look into the stands and be reassured that we are there. We are there to support and encourage him – and he very much appreciates it.
I received an e-mail today from the Guardian Cap folks that included a link to a story about the San Lorenzo Valley High football team wearing their over-the-helmet protective pad.
I’ve posted before before about how we sent our son back to the JV football team with the Guardian Cap after his second concussion. I am sharing this story because apparently the governing body of California high school football allows the Guardian Cap to be worn in games. We were told that Ohio wouldn’t allow them in a game because wearing one would invalidate the helmet’s warranty. Since the majority of hits happen in practice; we were OK with him only wearing the Guardian at practice.
However, seeing that other states are allowing them in games, I think Ohio should consider allowing the Guardian (or other protective equipment) to be worn during games.