How to Stay Safe & Play.
Published: July 30, 2017
By: Paige Townley
In recent years, football has taken a hit with concerns about safety being at an all-time high. But according to a recent report, the sport has actually seen a modest increase in kids playing the game.
According to the Sport & Fitness Industry Association, approximately 2.169 million children ages 6-14 played tackle football in 2015, up 1.9 percent from 2014 (2.128 million). Flag football participation among the same age group in 2015 was approximately 1.669 million, up 8.7 percent from 2014 (1.535 million).
In the 15-18 year old age group, 1.248 million U.S. children played tackle football in 2015, up 2.5 percent from 2014 (1.218 million). Flag football participation among tis age group in 2015 was 528,000, up 10.5 percent from 2014 (496,000).
The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) also reported in a 2016 survey that football is still the number one high school participation sport in the United States – approximately 1,085,272 high school students played on their school’s football team in the 2015-2016 school year.
Since football continues to reign as one of America’s favorite sports, there are many things parents need to know to make sure their athlete stays safe while on the field.
Main Safety Risks
There are obviously numerous safety risks one takes when playing a contact sport like football. What comes to mind most is concussions or other head injuries. But there are also a number of more common types of injuries that can happen, such as fractures, contusions, ligament sprains, and even pain from overuse of a certain part of the body.
“Concussions and neck/cervical spine injuries can be catastrophic, but in the younger ages it’s not as much of a concern,” says Dr. Jose Ortega, who practices non-surgical orthopaedic sports medicine at Andrews Sports Medicine & Orthopaedic Center. “Head injuries are not as much of a concern before junior high.”
Another significant health risk to watch for is overheating, notes Dr. Lawrence J. Lemak, founder and chairman of Lemak Health, who also serves on the Medical Advisory Committee for Pop Warner Football. “Heat is a real issue,” he says. “We are always concerned about heat stress, heat exhaustion, and heat strokes.”
Combat the Risks
There are a number of actions that can be taken to reduce the risk of injury. To avoid overheating, kids should start preparing for the weather prior to practice starting, says Dr. Shawn Gilbert, chief of pediatric orthopedics at Children’s of Alabama. “In the beginning of the season, when there is more of a concern about heat, kids should get acclimated to the weather by increasing their activity level leading up to the start of football practice,” he says. “They should get outdoors and run or perform other exercises to get acclimated.”
Another way to reduce the risk of injury, Gilbert adds, is working to increase stamina and endurance before the season’s practices begin. “Statistically speaking, there are a lot more injuries at the end of practice and end of games than the beginning,” he says. “As people become fatigued, their form isn’t as good and they have slower reaction times. It’s important to be aware of that, and players should try to incrementally increase their activity rather than going from being totally inert all summer to suddenly playing a lot.”
Know the Signs
There are a variety of specific signs of head or body injuries that must be watched for, says Mike Ryan, ATC at ATI Physical Therapy’s Sports Medicine Group. For head injuries, Ryan says to look for signs of speech problems, balance problems, nausea, vomiting, symptoms of a headache, sensitivity to light, and the child saying they just don’t feel right. For injuries, look for swelling, loss of motion, and an increase in pain.
When the signs aren’t so obvious, both coaches and parents should be observant enough of the kids to notice the signs that they aren’t acting quite normal. “To do that, it’s important that coaches get to know the kids and their capacity,” Lemak says. “If they know a child’s baseline capacity, they will recognize when they aren’t seeing it all of a sudden.”
A number of other potential giveaways can alert coaches and parents of an injury, such as if the child is complaining, seems to be tired, or is limping. “Usually kids don’t complain a lot, so if they say something hurts, don’t blow it off or tell them to tough it out,” Ortega adds. “If they say something hurts or are limping around, it should be evaluated.”
Potential Rule Changes
Pop Warner, the largest youth football program in the country, has already made a number of rule changes in response to the growing knowledge about football and concussions. In fact, Pop Warner was the first organized group to limit contact in practice, which it did in 2012. The organization also eliminated kickoffs in 2016.
“At Pop Warner, we made this change mainly because of concussions, but it’s good for other injuries too because if you can limit the amount of contact in practice you can really minimize or decrease the number of all types of injuries,” adds Lemak. “We have been tracking concussions, and the concussion rate has decreased.”
In 2015, USA Football, the national governing body for the sport, mandated a 30-minute limit on full-contact practices in an effort to reduce the risk of concussions and other serious injuries. And for 2017, the organization is taking further steps. To attempt to make the game safer, USA Football has implemented some rule changes in a pilot program in a number of leagues. The potential changes include: a smaller playing field (40 yards by 35 yards), fewer players on the field for each team (seven per team), no special teams (thus no kickoffs or punts), players must rotation in positions rather than specialize in just one, and coaches are required to make sure players of equal size are lined up against each other.
Don’t Forget About the Benefits
While there are plenty of safety issues to keep in mind when it comes to participating in a contact sport like football, what can’t be overlooked are the many benefits to playing the sport – from learning teamwork to getting plenty of physical activity.
“We talk all the time about concussions and other injury risks, but we can’t forget the important things that come out of playing sports,” Lemak says. “Kids playing sports develop good exercise habits, learn sportsmanship, how to compete, how to win, how to lose, how to work as a team, and how to interact with other kids. There are so many great things kids learn through sports.”
Paige Townley is a Birmingham freelance writer.