T-ball, Pee Wee soccer, and hockey -- kids' sports start early and can quickly become a big part of family life. Of course you want to encourage exercise, sportsmanship, and team spirit, but keeping your child safe while he competes should also be a priority. "Concussion rates in sports are the result of a number of factors, including improper technique, ill-fitting equipment, and the amount some kids play, on both a rec team and in a travel league," explains Elizabeth Pieroth, Psy.D., a neuropsychologist at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Chicago and the concussion consultant for the Chicago Bears, Blackhawks, Fire, and White Sox, and Northwestern University.
Before your child signs up for any kind of sport, make sure that the coaches have had concussion safety training and be aware of the symptoms of a concussion yourself: Persistent headache, dizziness, mental fogginess or confusion, and sensitivity to light and sound are some of the more common ones.
Many leagues now provide coaches with concussion training, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers an online course that's free to everyone. Reassure your child that it's fine -- and even a good idea -- to sit out if she's injured. It's also important to keep the pressure to play low and repeat the message: "It's just a game."Here's how each sport stacks up in the head-injury risk category, as well as ways to keep your child from sustaining one:
The risks You might have guessed this would be number one. Football gets plenty of bad press due to its aggressive nature, but it's still hugely popular. Another issue: A child's neck isn't as strong as an adult's, so a blow to the head from a fall or tackle is difficult to absorb and can send the brain crashing against the skull.
Make it safer Some experts believe kids under 14 shouldn't play tackle football; instead, flag football can be a safer way to practice the necessary skills and learn the sport. If your child does join a tackle football team, be certain the coach has been certified by Heads Up Football, a program created by USA Football to provide education on safer tackling techniques (keeping the head up, back straight, and leading with the shoulder), concussion management, and proper fitting equipment.
The risks Crashing against the boards, tripping over other players, and zipping around the rink make hockey number two on the sports concussion list for boys. Although fewer girls play ice hockey, concussion rates for those who do are high as well.
Make it safer Fortunately, many youth hockey leagues don't allow checking -- using your body to knock an opponent in possession of the puck to the ice or into the boards -- until kids are at least in junior high school. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no checking by players age 15 or younger for good reason: Kids who play in leagues where body checking is permitted are three times more likely to sustain a concussion and other injuries.
Properly sized and properly worn equipment is key in hockey, and the most important piece of gear is, of course, a helmet: It should be approved by the Hockey Equipment Certification Council (HECC) and have a full face mask with a chin cup and a securely fastened chin strap. Players should also be taught "Heads up, don't duck" -- when crashing into the boards, another opponent, or the ice itself, they should try to make contact with the shoulders or the buttocks, never the head.
The risks Repeated "heading" of the ball, colliding with fellow players, and crashing into the goalpost can cause concussions in this sport. Girls tend to suffer more of them than do boys who play soccer -- in fact, soccer takes the number-one position for rates of concussion in girls -- though the reason isn't exactly clear: It may be that girls' necks aren't as strong as boys' are or that girls are more inclined to report their symptoms.
Make it safer Goalies suffer more injuries than other players do, often resulting from collisions with the posts. Be sure the goals are securely tethered to the ground; ideally, the goal posts should also have four inches of padding. Coaches should teach kids the proper "heading" technique and encourage them to be aware of the other players when attempting this move so they don't accidentally crash into an opponent or teammate.
The risks Lacrosse is one of the fastest-growing sports in the United States, with ever-increasing concussion rates to show for it, especially among high school boys who are permitted to body check in a similar fashion to hockey. The ball is hard, it's thrown with great velocity, and players can knock into each other at multiple points as they move down the field.
Make it safer Although boys' lacrosse allows significant contact, unprotected hits have no place in the game. Helmets with full-face guards are mandatory, as are shoulder pads, padded gloves, and mouthpieces. The use of elbow pads and protective genital cups is also recommended.
For girls, who do not wear helmets, coaches, officials, and players must adhere to limited contact. Intentional body contact is not legal and stick checking must be directed away from an opponent's head and body toward the pocketed end of the stick only. Protective goggles and mouthpieces are mandatory, with lightweight gloves and soft headgear optional.
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