You’re a huge football fan. Sundays are spent parked in front of the TV watching crushing blow after crushing blow without really thinking about the concussion or other injury risks for the players, except as it pertains to your fantasy team. But what do you do when your son or daughter says they want to play? Sure, they’re not going up against 300 pound linebackers, but there are still injury risks – and as a parent, how do you balance the benefits of exercise with the risk of them getting hurt?
Here’s a look at some of the pros and cons of allowing them on the field:
Pro: Playing football can help kids stay in shape.
Childhood obesity remains one of the biggest problems facing the country, with more than one-third of kids overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A lack of exercise is a major component of this epidemic, says Stanley Herring, a clinical professor in the University of Washington’s sports medicine department, so parents should be encouraging kids to get outside and exercise. “A lifelong interest and commitment to health and fitness has never been more important as we face a widespread increase in sedentary lifestyles and childhood obesity,” he says. “Being active as a child correlates with being active as an adult.”
Con: Football players are at high risk for concussions.
The hard hits of football lead not only to sprains, broken bones and other physical injuries, but concussions as well. This brain injury has become a major concern for football players of all ages, and among young players, the problem appears to be getting worse. Between 1997 and 2007, the number of emergency department visits for concussions doubled between 8 and 13 year olds and tripled for older youth, according to the Southwest Athletic Trainers’ Association. While part of the spike is likely due to increased surveillance and awareness, it still outlines a major problem in youth sports, says Lori Cook, director? of the Pediatric Brain Injury Programs at the University of Texas–Dallas’s Center for BrainHealth. “Head injury is an obvious risk of kids playing football,” she says. Between 2001 and 2009, the most recent years of CDC data, football sent about 25,376 kids under age 19 to the emergency room for traumatic brain injury each year, which was second only to bicycling.
Pro: Kids who play sports do better in school.
Organized sports don’t just help kids’ bodies, but their minds as well, says Kim Gorgens?, clinical associate professor in the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the University of Denver. A study published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in August found that kids who did more aerobic exercise had more compact white matter in the brain, which is linked to better cognitive function.? “We are just beginning to understand the role of aerobic exercise in brain plasticity,” she says. “The findings are incredibly robust for kids. Brain and body fitness appear to be the same thing. Research suggests that physical activity is essential for learning and retention of learned material.”
Con: Injuries can have long-lasting effects.
In the short term, concussions cause memory problems, confusion, nausea and vomiting. Over time, repeated concussions have been linked to brain damage – and now, research shows? that even one concussion can cause long-lasting issues, Gorgens says. One study, published in the journal Neurology in July, found that right after a concussion, study participants performed 25 percent worse on memory and cognition tests when compared to healthy people. And one year later, even though test scores were the same between both groups, those who had a concussion still showed signs of brain damage on imaging scans. “We are beginning to better understand the functional consequences of even a single concussion,” Gorgens says. “We see changes in brain function for weeks and months after an injured athlete identifies themselves to be symptom free.”
Pro: Organized sports help teach kids life lessons.
Joining Pop Warner offers even more benefit than playing a pickup game with your friends, Gorgens says. “Organized sports are a learning lab for life,” she says. “They steep kids in everything from frustration management to diplomacy to collaboration, and data suggests that involvement in team sports is associated with higher high school graduation rates.”
Balancing the Risks and Benefits
The discussion appears to come down to the question of what’s the bigger issue – concussions or obesity, but it’s really a matter of how much you’re willing to risk, Cook says. You can’t protect your kids forever, and concussions and other injuries are going to be a risk no matter what sport they play. Instead of trying to shelter children, surround them with people who can identify and handle any problems quickly. “It is important for parents and youth coaches to arm themselves with proper concussion knowledge,” she says. “If coached and played with head safety in mind, the benefits of sports participation will likely far outweigh the risk. With proper training, equipment and putting rules in place to protect young athletes, we can make all sports safer.”
While kids typically recover within a week from their first concussion, and parents, coaches and doctors have become better at detecting and managing them, Gorgens says some cases don’t respond in the typical way – and when your kid is that case, statistics don’t matter. “As a neuropsychologist and parent, I am made more cautious by appreciating what we don’t know and the not knowing makes a truly informed decision about risk more difficult,” she says. “For example, we don’t know why a few kids don’t recover after a single injury or why even fewer kids have catastrophic outcomes after second injuries.”
Gorgens, a mother of two, is thankful neither of her children have asked her? for permission to play football, and says she’d probably dissuade them from doing so if they asked. “I would be all for flag football and completely opposed to tackle football,” she says. “Especially for my junior high school student who, like many boys his age, has had one concussion already.”
While Herring says there’s no need to prevent your children from playing football, the most important thing is to encourage them to be active. “If football is something your healthy child enjoys, then the benefits outweigh the risks,” he says. “This is true for other sports as well, as long as there is proper training of the coaches and a well thought out plan for injury and illness education and management in place. Parents should expect nothing less.”
Ultimately, Herring adds, make it a conversation between you and your children, instead of outright forbidding them from exercising. “Help your child pick the right sport for them,” he says. “The key is to get them to stay active.”