Before hitting the practice fields this spring, athletic trainers are warming up with a youth sports safety summit that kicks off today in Dallas, Texas.
Topping the agenda: Scientific research that shows children nationwide are at risk of sports injuries in addition to a rallying cry around bills introduced in Congress earlier this month aimed at keeping young athletes safe.
The legislation would provide enforcement to address growing concerns over concussions among children who play youth sports. Among other things, the bill would mandate the removal of athletes suspected of having a concussion.
It also promises to help school districts develop concussion management plans, which could mean more certified athletic personnel on the fields.
In an interview with Healthline, National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) President Jim Thornton said youth sports can still be played safely.
“It’s all about techniques and training, and obviously you’re going to have injuries in football. It’s the nature of the beast,” said Thornton. “Coaches need to learn new techniques. Some still think you plant your head in somebody’s numbers. That’s just old, outdated, dinosaur thinking.”
In Southern California’s growing Santa Clarita Valley, Dr. Emily Schwartz works as a sports medicine physician for Facey Medical Group.
The Santa Clarita Valley just restarted its own Little League this spring. The community often swelters in temperatures in excess of 100 degrees. With more children playing sports in that heat year after year, Schwartz keeps on top of what’s hot in youth sports safety.
She said the legislation “is a great step in the right direction” in helping groups obtain grants on automated external defibrillators and training on how to use them.
A national collection method on youth sports injuries and outcomes also is needed, she added.
Medical Supervision Needed at More Events
Thornton says the lack of medical availability at sporting events is a huge issue.
He said 37 percent of high schools in the United States have an athletic trainer and most resources tend to be given to the football team.
“Why does just the football team deserve medical services and not the entire department?” he asked.
Schwartz said when it comes to putting an injured athlete back in a game, only a physician or a nurse practitioner should be allowed to make the call.
“The fact that it could be a national mandate to take any athlete with a suspected concussion out of the activity immediately is so important in the safety of all athletes,” Schwartz said. “My only issue is that a ‘health care professional’ includes an athletic trainer or physical therapist.”
More than 7 million high school athletes participate in youth sports, Thornton said, and there are not enough medical personnel available.
More than 46 million children play team sports nationwide, according to NATA.
More than a million children per year visit emergency rooms for sports injuries, according to NATA, accounting for one in five injury-related emergency room visits among children ages 6 to 19.
Schwartz also noted the guidelines talk about when to return to the classroom and not just when it’s safe to return to athletic play.
“A lot of new research is coming out showing the importance of ‘return to learn’ over ‘return to activities’ and that cognitive rest may need to be longer than the return to play,” she said. “Provisions for cognitive rest during the school day and modifying assignments is a step in the right direction and the fact that they want a concussion management team is necessary to make sure that each student is being treated with the best practice and is safely returned every time.”
On issues related to heat the bill doesn’t go far enough, she said.
“It does not address actual temperatures or times that it would be safe to play and will therefore be hard to mandate,” said Schwartz. “Decreasing the use of energy drinks is also very important in that age group since it can contribute to dehydration and is not a substitute for water.”
“If we’ve got enough money to have these sporting events in the first place, we should find the money to provide a safe environment for these people to play,” Thornton said. “Money is an excuse. This is too important, too big of a deal. People should really think about why we have high school sports. Because it’s good for kids, sure. But because they are entertaining us as adults, and adults should be providing a safe environment for them to play.”
Pop Warner Enrollment Down, Awareness Up
So how are parents responding to all the buzz?
With plenty of concern. In fact, in an exclusive report ESPN said that after Pop Warner youth football enrollment peaked at 249,000 in 2010, it declined almost 10 percent during the next two seasons. Pop Warner has a concussion policy on its website and states it has 12 percent fewer injuries per capita than youth soccer.
But Schwartz said she hasn’t seen declining enrollment in youth sports in the Santa Clarita Valley.
“Not at all, in fact I think that increased awareness is reassuring people that their children will be better looked after,” she said. “I have, however, seen an increase in parents asking questions about these issues in clinic, which is great.”
Another issue that has been brought to light recently is the syndrome of “overuse injuries” in youth sports.
Schwartz said that is what she sees most commonly. It often comes as the result of children playing only one kind of sport year-round, such as baseball. She said allowing children to try multiple things is not only good for them socially but physically, too.
Thornton hopes parents will see the need to support bills such as the Safe Play Act. Certified athletic trainers, he said, need to be present at schools and at athletic events in larger numbers.
“Would you ever drop a child off at a public swimming pool without knowing there’s a lifeguard on duty? You would never do that,” Thornton said. “But we will drop them off at soccer practice, or football practice, or lacrosse practice, and not think twice about whether someone is there to manage a serious injury.”