The APA on Youth Tackle Football & “Hit Counts”

When I started this blog, I didn’t think the majority of my posts would be about youth tackle football, but this is a vital topic of conversation in youth recreational sports.  My last post mentioned the National Association of Youth Sports.  Another organization I follow on Twitter is The Aspen Sports Institute (@AspenInstSports) because they share a similar philosophy of promoting positive youth recreational sports experiences.  Recently, they posted a link to a statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics on Tackling in Youth Football.  Interestingly, while I was mulling over what to say about the AAP’s statement, the Oct. 26, 2015 issue of Time Magazine included a piece by Sean Gregory advocating tracking hits to the head in football similarly to how baseball tracks pitch counts.  The AAP makes some solid recommendations including sort of agreeing with Gregory’s proposal for “hit counts“.

Youth Tackle FootballDespite some rather dubious conclusions (does the statement “a higher proportion of injuries result from contact than noncontact mechanisms” really require 5 citations?!?!), the AAP statement includes a couple of nuggets of information, including:

  • The risk of catastrophic injury during participation in football is comparable to the risk in gymnastics and lower than the risk in ice hockey.
  • The incidence of injuries sustained by children ages 7 to 13 years playing football was similar to, and in fact slightly lower than, that of baseball and boys’ soccer.

The AAP statement is balanced; while presenting data that limiting Flag Football Picturethe contact in practices or not having contact until a certain age may reduce the number of head injuries, they also present the position that delaying the teaching of proper tackling and getting tackled techniques might actually make the risk of injury higher.  Their conclusions / recommendations include changing the culture of of football to one where there is zero tolerance for illegal head-first hits, removing tackling from football altogether (they admit this is quite radical and not likely), expanding nontackling leagues (see my previous post recommending flag football before middle school), making efforts to reduce the number of hits to the head, delaying the age when tackling is introduced, strengthening the athlete’s necks, and making every effort to have athletic trainers on the sidelines of football practices and games.

With respect to the AAP’s recommendation to reduce the number of hits, they are at least partially in line with the idea of “hit counts”.  Gregory offers what he calls a modest proposal:  regulating hits to the head in football just as we count pitches in baseball.  He notes that this would require outfitting helmets with sensors and then determining how many shots a player can sustain before sitting out.  A Google search of football helmet impact sensors resulted in a couple of products ranging from $49.99 to $199.99; so, the idea of including sensors in youth football helmets might make an already expensive sport more so.  But, if it contributes to reducing the number of long-term head injuries to youth football players; what parent wouldn’t pay the additional cost?  Although the AAP cites the need for more research in the area, they reference a study that found a mean of 774 impacts per high school player during a single season (the number varied by position, with linemen sustaining the higher number of impacts) and another where the average number of hits per 7-8 year-old player was 107 with more occurring during practices than games.  The statement also reported that the number of impacts increased with increasing level of play from youth to high school.

I recommend additional research with the expected result being the establishment of standard age-based ‘hit counts’ that would then be measured using sensors installed in helmets.  In the meantime, leagues ought to consider simply counting collisions involving the head during practice and games as a start – and limiting them based on localized results.  As Gregory asks in his piece:  “Baseball started somewhere.  Why can’t football do the same?”

National Standards for Youth Sports

Today I came across a youth recreational basketball league that required parents to read the National Standards for Youth Sports as part of signing their child up for the league.  I was a little embarrassed with myself that I was not familiar with these national standards.  What kind of youth recreational sports enthusiast am I, right?

So, I did what we all do when we are trying to find information – I Google’d it.  Turns out I am familiar with the organization that put the standards together – the National Association for Youth Sports (NAYS).  NAYS has been around since 1981 and espouses to be “America’s leading advocate for positive and safe sports for children“.  I have followed them on Twitter (@NAYS_edu) for a while and appreciate their content and efforts to provide positive youth recreational sports experiences.

After reviewing the standards, I have the following analysis/commentary:  the standards provide welcome guidance for adults – and the children themselves – for ensuring a positive experience; and are very much in line with my Hustle & Attitude philosophy.  I think leagues and individuals that adhere to these standards would be well on their way to giving children a fun, safe, and positive sports experience. My specific thoughts on the standards include:

  • The age-specific recommendations in Standard #1 seem appropriate; particularly those that recognize different development levels based on age
  • I completely agree with the recommendation for training of adults involved in youth recreational sports; I believe that coaches are the most in need of training – and I will be giving my first Hustle & Attitude coaching clinic in December
  • One of the most important things our children can learn from their youth recreational sports experiences is good sportsmanship – the essence of Standard #6
  • My wife pointed out that the recommendations concerning first-aid certification and CPR qualified personnel being present at all times in Standard #7 are really good; but what responsibility does the league have to provide these resources?

The ‘Equal Play Opportunity’ standard is perhaps my favorite.  As I mention in the ‘About’ page, providing equal opportunities for all children to participate in sports is one of the things I am most passionate about.  To me, non-discrimination goes without saying, but the implementation items #2, #4, and #5 are the ones that most speak to me.  I will have more to say later about how wrong it is that finances would keep a child from playing sports – money should not be an impediment.  A key tenet of the Hustle & Attitude philosophy is to provide equal playing time for all participants.  And, I have had the privilege of coaching children who were not necessarily diagnosed with a disability, but were developmentally challenged.  I call it a privilege because the relationships have been some of the most rewarding in my youth recreational sports coaching career (I believe the feeling is mutual for the children, too).

Overall, I think the National Standards for Youth Sports are a valuable tool in the effort to continue to provide positive youth recreational sports experiences.  My Hustle & Attitude philosophy and the practical application is in line with these standards and amplifies many of them.

The Tragedy of Evan Murray; More on Youth Football

Charles Pierce has a stunning piece on Grantland about the death of Evan Murray.  His commentary about how “Evan is dead because he played American football” is an in your face, blunt and frank assessment of the state of high school football in America.  His suggestion that nobody should play football until they are at least 21, as outrageous as it might seem at first blush, merits consideration.  As I said in my previous post about youth football, I recommend flag football as an alternative before high school.  But, as Pierce points out, 13 high school football players have died from injuries between 2012 and 2014.  Recently, while a spectator at a high school football game, I cheered loudly and enthusiastically when our team’s cornerback ‘blew up’ the opposing team’s wide receiver.  The hit was hard enough to knock the receiver’s helmet off and the receiver remained on the ground for several minutes before being helped off the field.  I found Pierce’s comments about the fans cheering the hits that led to the deaths of the three players mentioned in his piece very convicting…what if the hit I cheered so loudly had resulted in serious injury or death?  How would I feel about watching football, then? Perhaps high school is too early for tackle football.  Or, perhaps it is time for a national conversation about ‘American football’.  Pierce refers to Teddy Roosevelt’s role in bringing about standard rules and policies governing the sport to make it safer.  I don’t know the answer.  But, I think it’s time we all have the discussion.

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