Monday, May 14, 2012
Wednesday May 9, NBC’s Rock Center did a report on the increase in serious concussions among female soccer players. In a promo for an upcoming segment, an earnest reporter asked a father why he allowed his daughter to continue playing a game when he knew she faced serious injury. His chagrined and flustered reply, "Well she loves playing. I don’t want to stop her from doing something she loves." Buzz – wrong answer. This is exactly the type of sound bite with which news agencies make hay. It not only makes parents seem irresponsibly immune to the dangers surrounding sport, but creates the impression that whatever it takes to succeed, including a life-altering brain injury, we should go ahead and tolerate it in the name of sport. Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I have addressed the issue of concussions several times. I readily acknowledge that concussions, and particularly repeated concussions, can be a life-altering injury but we aren’t sending our children out to play Russian Roulette on the field.
The good news is that despite the rise in concussions among young female soccer players, the actual numbers are in the hundreds. With 3 million registered players, US Youth Soccer has the largest number of youth players in the United States. Roughly 48 percent of these are girls, or 1.4 million. Even if the number of girls with serious concussions reached 1000 a year that translates to only .0007 percent, hardly a number to consider wholesale changes to the game.
The players interviewed for the Rock Center report represented the extremes. All had suffered at least three concussions. Most were unable to concentrate for only three hours in school and one girl had to have her room bathed in blue light and eat dinner by candle light to avoid migraines. They also all admitted they didn’t leave games after suffering their first concussion because they either didn’t want to appear weak or the team needed them. I’ve read where experts tell us that recovering from a concussion takes at least a week of no rigorous activity and definitely no rough contact. But time and again players, parents, coaches and referees ignore this advice. According to the research cited in the Rock Center piece, girls are slightly more prone to being concussed due to longer, thinner necks and weaker neck muscles. Therefore, any head injury, no matter how slight it appears at the moment, needs to be considered serious enough to be removed from the game. If there is any black out at all, even for a few seconds, it requires immediate removal and a medical follow up.
The report did point out why injured girls play even with the threat of serious brain trauma. As one girl stated, "When I was forced to quit soccer I lost my identity, my social life, my friends and my joy." Parents will often experience the same loss on a different level. They develop friendships and a social life with the other parents of teammates, so the entire family can experience a loss.
Possible head injuries are a part of any sport, although soccer can have what is considered a higher than average incident rate due to both headers and other collisions during the game. Therefore, no one should take this report by NBC lightly. We just need to have some perspective. There exist safeguards to protect players from the first time they approach the ball to their waning adult competitive days. We need to be sure these safeguards are applied regularly and consistently. This job for making sure players stay safe falls primarily on referees and coaches, then on parents and finally on the players. First, referees need to control games carefully for the youngest players. Elbows to the head and neck need to be an immediate card and dismissal from the field. Excessively rough play needs to be stopped with a zero tolerance policy for any players. Any injury to the head means that the player must leave the game for the rest of the game–no exceptions. If a player blacks out, then immediate medical attention must be arranged. Coaches need to prepare their players for these policies and then support them. It’s difficult in a big game with the score tied and only three minutes left to pull your best striker for a possible head injury, but we all have to look long term, not at the immediate gains. Parents need to support coaches and referees in both controlling rough play and in removing players from the field either for rough play or for injury. These policies ensure that players think twice before that overly aggressive hit to the back of the head and players can have long and productive soccer careers.
One suggestion made by NBC was for headers to be banned under the age of 12. Brandi Chastain, the former Olympic and World Cup star of the U.S. Women’s National Team, disagreed strongly. She felt that headers were a beautiful and inherent part of the game which shouldn’t be eliminated from the younger players’ repertoire. Besides, players naturally go with their head for any ball above their chest. It would be a difficult ban to not only enforce, but justify.
If players choose to wear a head guard, it’s important that everyone support their decision. It is not a sign of weakness or a silly piece of equipment. Parents should encourage your players not to make fun of any player who elects to wear a head guard. Coaches support the decision even if you don’t see the point. Players also need to be honest about how they are feeling. If a hit makes you woozy, then let the coach know and take yourself out of the game. If the coach establishes prior to the season that he or she wants any player with a possible head injury to pull out, then it makes the decision easier for the player. Parents, let your player know that you will be proud of her if she realizes she’s not quite right and asks to sit out.
Our kids aren’t asking to test their reflexes by hitting the springs on bear traps. They are playing a game that has been around for decades and will be around for decades more. Unlike the baited question of "Why let your daughter play a game that you know is dangerous for her?" leaving the poor parent to stutter and stumble around a response that just makes them look irresponsible and uncaring, the real question should be "What are you doing as a parent to make soccer even safer for your daughter?" That’s an answer that doesn’t yield the kind of fear-based reporting we see all too often, but does offer some real help to the viewers. We can’t eliminate concussions, but we can develop strategies that diminish the number of concussions and diminish the severity of those concussions. Most importantly we need to take any hit to the head, neck, or back seriously and err to the side of caution when we suspect some brain involvement. The idea is to watch our kids play in lots of games not just win one significant game. The idea is to have our kids enjoy their passion safely.