California may soon ban youth tackle football in an attempt to protect kids from brain injuries, but are they eyeing the right target as it applies to sport safety? There is no argument head injuries, as well as all youth sport injuries, should be taken seriously, but to date we really have no idea how many kids experience brain injuries from contact sports. Countless kids play contact sports each year, yet we have no evidence of a specific percentage that will experience head injuries, nor do we know if a youngster later experiences brain issues that his/her injury is due to previous contact sport participation. While we are learning about these risks, youth football and other contact sport organizations have worked hard to change rules and integrate better equipment to ensure sport safety for kids. The irony, however, is that while California may ban contact football (that some feel is an over-reach), they seem to be completely ignoring the very real mental/emotional issues commonly seen stemming from youth sport fatigue, exhaustion, and sport burnout.
Sport safety issues in youth sports
It goes without saying that we should pay close attention to the impact of head injuries athletes experience while competing in sports, but is that the only thing we should monitor? Yes, concussions and CTE have gotten the most media attention in recent years, but there is not consensus when it comes to just how many athletes experience CTE, how they develop CTE, and whether CTE would have occurred naturally without contact sport participation? How we diagnose, measure, and attribute cause-effect is very important, especially when we are looking at rates in which something occurs, as well as preventative measures to integrate designed to curb the problem. To date, there are more questions than answers — especially at the youth sport level.
Interestingly, a more observable potential problem in youth sports is sport burnout, yet this issue is hardly even discussed nationwide, much less had any measures taken to prevent burnout from occurring. Instead, we continue to sign kids up for competitive sports year-round, often place them in 2 or more sports at the same time, and commonly miss the signs when they are burned out and in need of a break. While you might not, at first, see any sense of equivalency between head injuries and sport burnout, it is important to take a closer look at the issues that commonly flow from sport burnout:
- Kids dealing with sport burnout often experience a high degree of stress, with most not yet equipped to know how to handle this stress.
- Poor stress coping can invite depression, anxiety, and a host of mental health problems.
- Additionally, when kids do not know how to cope with stress, it is not uncommon to see them use alcohol, drugs, and even engage in risky behaviors to take their mind off their stress.
- For kids who quit sports due to sport burnout, gaining closure and developing a post-sport identity is another huge challenge altogether. For older kids who banked on “making it” in sports, entirely new career plans may need to be made as well.
To be clear, nobody is saying sport burnout is worse than concussions, but what we should be doing is taking proactive measures toward all the safety issues witnessed in youth sports — including the less dramatic, yet equally serious issues like sport burnout. California may be over-aggressive with their approach to potential head injuries, while simultaneously ignoring threats like sport burnout that impact far many more kids annually.
California may be about to take an aggressive stance by implementing a state law prohibiting tackle football before age 12. To the extent that this new law is warranted will be debated, but because sport brain injuries are regularly in the news it’s understandable why this new law may pass. But if we take a more wide-lens view of budding safety problems in sports, we might want to examine issues like sport burnout, and the exponentially bigger number of kids who experience burnout compared to brain injuries. No, burnout isn’t nearly as dramatic, but it impacts countless kids across America today, and the consequences for kids not yet able to cope with stress related to sport burnout can be very serious when left to redefine their identity, as well as figure out what to do with life after sports end.