When Is the Right Age for a Child to Specialize in a Sport?

by Tony Doran, Psy.D.
HeadFirst Concussion Care Program Director

How many times have you seen parents running their kids from one sporting event to the next? Parents and kids feel the pressure to stay on the best team, with the best trainer, and the best coach to continue to progress in their sport.

At what age should a child or teen begin to specialize in a sport? Should kids go the route of gymnastics and figure skating and focus exclusively at an early age or should specialization be held off until high school or college when bodies and minds begin to fully form and develop?

An excellent article on the Steve Nash Basketball Blog addresses these questions and more.

Sports-Kids

Having been in the military, I had the benefit of having my children participate in school systems and sports programs up and down th
e Eastern seaboard. School systems and sports programs are not all the same. The culture within these communities created by principals, athletic directors, teachers, coaches, athletes and parents were a direct result of their collective focus and values.

As a psychologist, what I have found interesting is that the value system of sports and athletics tends to mirror one another. Within one community, children are not cut from a sports team – all children up to 9th grade may be able to try out and play on any team without getting cut. In the same community, children may not receive letter grades – or “competitive grades” – until the 8th grade.

Elsewhere, however, I’ve seen children cut from teams and competing for spots as early as 1st grade, when they also begin receiving competitive letter grades.

As with many things, the trick is in finding the right balance. Children in 1st grade cognitively can’t keep score and focus on the tasks of what they need to do on the field. What does a “D” in reading really mean to a first grader? A summary letter grade is an abstract concept that doesn’t teach very young children that they need to read more to improve their proficiency. The same applies to sports. An older child can understand the causes and consequences of a low letter grade, be it in academics or sports. But is waiting until 9th grade to be cut from a team too long to teach the lesson that life is competitive?

Another factor to consider are that traumatic brain injuries (concussions) will interrupt an athlete’s season and training. The type of community a child is living in and the focus of the coach, parents, athletic trainers, administrators, and other adults working, training and living with these young athletes can affect treatment outcomes in case of a concussion. Is your community one that is fostering hyper-competition that is focused on the top one percent or does it focus on age-appropriate health and well-being of all its children and how they all can benefit from athletic competition?

Run, Sam. Run!

This week over 2 million viewers watched Sam’s impressive speed and versatility on YouTube. Sam Gordon is a girl playing in an all-boys tackle football league in Utah.  Sam finished the 2012 season with a stat line that would make any parent and coach proud. According to the video, she scored 35 touchdowns on 232 carries, totaling 1,911 yards and averaging 8.2 yards per carry. And just for the fun of it, she also had 65 tackles.

It is hard not to watch this video and be wowed, but in this era of concerns about concussions, on all levels of football, this video raises some concerns.  The last minute of the video shows clips highlighting the 9 year old girl “taking a hit”.  Some of them are quite jarring. Gordon is not even 60 pounds, and there’s a kid on her team who weighs more than 150 – his nickname is Tank.

In his new book, Concussions and Our Kids: America’s Leading Expert On How To Keep Sports Safe And Protect Young Athletes, Dr. Robert Cantu – a clinical professor of neurosurgery at the Boston University School of Medicine — proposes that children should not play tackle football until they are 14 years old. The better game for children under 14 is flag football — in which kids grab flags rather than each other to stop the ball carrier.

Our message to Sam is simple: run, Sam. Run. Run so you can avoid the hits!

Does Riddell Have a Duty to Protect Players?

Whose responsibility is to make sure an athlete remains concussion free? The player? The coach? Parents? Well, at least 2,500 people believe it should be the helmet manufacturers.

Right now 2,500 plaintiffs are seeking damages against Riddell because they believe the sports equipment company had a duty to protect NFL players against the long-term risk of concussions, yet defaulted on that obligation.  

Further, the plaintiffs believe that Riddell falsely marketed their helmets as having the ability to reduce the risk of concussions by a substantial percentage. Plaintiffs refer to Riddell’s Revolution helmet in their Master Complaint, pointing out that Riddell marketed the helmet as reducing concussions by 31%.

In response to this accusation, all Riddell Football Helmets now include concussion awareness hang-tags with information from USA Football and the CDC.

Whose responsibility is it to educate the sports community about the dangers of concussion? In our estimation, everyone.

College Football Conferences Begin Studying Concussion Awareness

The SEC (Southeastern Conference), a Division I participant of the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association), has recently formed a task force to study the effects of concussion among college football players.

The conference, which includes colleges in the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, decided to form the group because of the several concussion lawsuits brought by former pro football players against the NFL.

The Southeastern Conference (SEC) of the NCAA has recently launched a task force to look into concussions among its football players and how to protect them from brain injuries.

Concern about the long-term effects of concussions is spreading from the professional level to the college athletics, especially since virtually none of the football conferences have established guidelines for dealing with head injuries.

University of Florida President Bernie Machen said last week, “We’re all aware that issues associated with concussions sustained during athletic competition have become increasingly matters of concern both within our league and indeed at the national level.”

The SEC’s decision comes on the heels of the Big Ten’s recent initiative to begin studying head injuries through its academic consortium. With 12 member universities in the states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the Big Ten conference includes some of the largest student bodies in the country.

Last year, the Ivy League, with eight private institutions in the northeastern U.S., became the only conference to implement specific guidelines in an effort to reducing concussions among its football players. Its rules now include limiting full-contact practices to twice a week, a 60 percent reduction from NCAA rules, as well as the possibility of players being penalized for helmet hits, including the option of suspension for intentional hits.

Concussion Crisis Growing in Girls’ Soccer

This evening at 9pm (EST), NBC Rock Center, hosted by Brian Williams, will report on the staggering numbers of concussions sustained by adolescent girls playing soccer. Female contact sports means concussions are no longer an issue just affecting boys. Read the full article here for more information about tonight’s program. Check out your local listings for the channel.

Courtesy NBC News

Uncovering Clues About Concussions in High School Football Players

Steven Broglio, Ph.D., A.T.C., director of the University of Michigan’s Neurotrauma Research Laboratory and assistant professor at the U-M School of Kinesiology, has been conducting research on the number of hits sustained by a high school football player and is reporting staggering numbers.

Using helmet sensors, Broglio found that the average player sustains more than 650 impacts per football season, though some players experience more than 2,000 hits. A concussion will occur with a hit that measures about 90 to 100 g-force, which Broglio reports as a head smashing against a wall at 20mph.

Another interesting note about is his finding that concussions don’t seem to occur as a result of the “snowball” effect—that is, lots of smaller hits don’t equal a concussion. Rather, all it takes to sustain a concussion is a single, solid hit.

Michigan is one of the few states remaining which has not passed youth concussion protection legislation.

Take a look at the video from the University of Michigan News Service to see Broglio’s helmet sensor and how the hits were measured.

Contact Sports: A Case of Child Abuse?

youth hockey

Courtesy jayaruu / morgueFile

The Canadian Medical Association has just weighed in on the subject of concussions sustained by young athletes playing contact sports and has some pretty shockingly strong words. Emile Therien, former president of the Canada Safety Council, calls hockey “child abuse” due to Hockey Canada’s failure to implement strict anti-concussion measures.

Of course, hockey is the unofficial national sport of our northern neighbor, and the CMA was taking aim specifically at it. But, any contact sport carries a serious threat, as pointed out in an editorial by Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., a professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania. He cites the CMA’s report about concussions among youths playing hockey and clearly feels for parents who must make a difficult choice: allow their children to be part of a team that will encourage good virtues or expose them to the dangers of injuries that could leave them with damaged brains later in life.