Pee Wee Football and the Concern About Concussions

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By Mark R. Gould

Pee Wee football has received a lot of attention lately, as parents and other interested parties wonder if this popular past time has a concussion problem.  Football stars Kurt Warner and Tom Brady have raised the issue in recent weeks.

“USA Today’ reports that researchers at the Center for Injury Biomechanics estimates the number of football players in the USA: 2,000 in the NFL, 100,000 in college, 1.3 million in high school and 3.5 million in youth leagues.

“The study (by the group)  found that while youth league players have fewer and lower-magnitude head impacts than high school and college players, high-magnitude hits do occur, and most happen in practice. They suggest limiting hits in practice, a rule change the NFL adopted last season. Pop Warner football, with 285,000 players  ages 5-15 last season, will address a similar step soon.” 

A Pee Wee football coach I know tells me he has witnessed one concussion over the past four seasons. He says it is not something that happens often and his league emphasizes good tackling and blocking technique to cut down the chances of such an occurrence.

Dr. Robert Cantu, author of Concussions and Our Kids: America's Leading Expert on How to Protect Young Athletes and Keep Sports Safe told  NPR recently,  “It's really tough, especially at the youth level, where it's rare that you have medical expertise on the sideline. Youngsters don't necessarily use the same words that we adults do to describe the 26 post-concussion symptoms and they often don't know what those symptoms are and they often don't know when they've had a concussion.

“Youngsters are at much greater risk than adults in terms of concussion, both because their brains are not myelinated fully. Myelin is the coating of nerve fibers like coating on the telephone wire. It gives it better transmission, but it also gives it greater strength. So a child's brain is much more easily damaged from acceleration forces imparted to it. …youngsters have disproportionately large heads, very weak necks. And this combination means that a force delivered to a youngster will have much greater injurious effects to the brain.”

Cantu says that a lot of parents don’t like a less violent alternative—flag football-- and want their kids to play in tackle football leagues.

Cantu says USA Football and Pop Warner limit hitting drills to two times a week, cutting a third of the trauma that can be obtained in practice.

A recent Pop Warner football game in Boston drew a great deal of attention—and criticism—when five players were concussed.

According to The New York Times, Pop Warner has done more than perhaps any other organization to try to protect young players from head injuries. In 2010, the league told its coaches that if there was any doubt about a child’s health, the player was to be removed from play. Coaches receive training in how to recognize concussions, and once a player is removed because of a concussion, he needs a doctor’s note to return to games. In June, Pop Warner told its coaches to limit player contact in practices and to eliminate full-speed head-on blocking and tackling drills.

“Having been there and coached, the game officials should have been more cognizant with this many kids going down and seeing the sidelines and the same kids going out there,” said Kevin Guskiewicz, the founding director of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center at the University of North Carolina, who advises the N.C.A.A. and N.F.L. “What in the world was the coach thinking?”

“It’s shocking there were five concussions diagnosed because it means there were probably many more,” said Chris Nowinski, president of the Sports Legacy Institute, a nonprofit organization involved in research on brain trauma among athletes and members of the military. “And with a roster that small, the kids might have felt pressure to keep playing.”

USA Today recently posted these resources for parents and players. They include:

KidsHealth.org has a kid friendly section on concussions: "When a cartoon character gets bonked on the head, stars appear and float in a silly circle. It may be funny to see in a cartoon, but it's not so funny when it happens for real.’’ There’s also a page for parents.

The website of USA Football has a five-part video series on concussions. "When in doubt, sit them out," cautions former NFL running back Merrill Hoge, who retired in 1994 after two concussions in five weeks. There’s also a video series on safe tackling. USA Football is endowed by the NFL and the players union.

The Centers for Disease Control has a "Concussion in Sports" section loaded with information on how to recognize concussions, respond and prevent them. "Most concussions occur without loss of consciousness," it notes.

Boston's Sports Legacy Institute CEO Chris Nowinski  is campaigning for a "hit count" for youths in football and other contact sports. Like a pitch count in baseball, it would limit how many hits a child can take per season and year.

One group is studying whether sensors in helmets or mouth guards can reliably measure head impacts and help improve helmets and rules.

The group has seen serious brain injuries among youths who didn't play until high school and hadn't learned "protective skills" while playing in weight-age groups.

The Centers for Disease Control analyzed data from 2001 to 2009 of brain injuries that resulted in emergency room visits for players 19 and younger involved in sports and recreation. Football-related causes ranked second; bicycling was tops.

In 2009, Washington passed the Zackery Lystedt Law. It says schools or leagues using school property can't allow concussed athletes to return without medical clearance. Now, 35 states have similar laws. The NFL is lobbying for such laws in every state. Pop Warner put in a rule in 2010: Players with suspected concussions can't return until evaluated by a licensed medical professional.

The National Athletic Trainers' Association reports just 42% of high school athletes have access to athletic trainers. More concussions happen in high school than pee wee football, according to experts.

In his book, Cantu offers these safety recommendations:

  • No tackle football before age 14.
  • No heading in soccer until age 14.
  • No body checking in youth hockey before age 14.
  • Helmets should be required in field hockey and girl’s lacrosse.
  • Hold sports officials to a higher standard./p>
  • For youth baseball, require chin straps and restrict the headfirst slide.

 

Visit your local library for those and other resources:

Concussions and Our Kids: America's Leading Expert on How to Protect Young Athletes and Keep Sports Safe
by Dr. Robert Cantu, (2012).

Throwaway Players: The Concussion Crisis from Pee Wee Football to the NFL
by Gay Culverhouse, (2012).

 

Image credit:

Southern Tier Youth Football Conference, NY - Newark Valley @ Maine Endwell Gold by  jdanvers.

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