Dr. Robert Cantu, a leading national expert on the issue of sports concussions, makes recommendations in his upcoming book, Concussions and Our Kids, that will no doubt raise eyebrows among some parents and youth sports coaches. Those recommendations include:
- No tackle football before fourteen.
- No body checking in youth hockey before age 14.
- Helmets should be required in field hockey and girls' lacrosse.
- No heading in soccer until fourteen.
- For youth baseball, require chin straps and restrict the headfirst slide.
If you're noticing the number 14 a lot, Cantu points out that this is a developmental milestone for kids in terms of their neck strength and the protective myelin coating that grows in their brains. Kids at this age also have the intellectual maturity to decide for themselves whether they want to engage in the risks of contact sports, he argues:
"A teenager entering high school, if he is the child we have raised him to be, can make a reasoned judgment about the risks and rewards of tackle football. A teen won't weigh these factors as a parent would. But he has the capacity to think for himself. The same is not true of six-year-olds, of course. Each time that child puts on the shoulder pads, he is assuming a risk that he isn't old enough to understand."
Cantu also holds up the football program at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., as a model for concussion prevention, even though the program and its unique coach, John Gagliardi, haven't been looking for publicity or studying whether their limited-contact approach to practice results in fewer injuries. The section starts with Gagliardi reflecting on his high school football days in the 1940s:
"'We had a traditional coach who did things the way everyone did at the time. Practices were very demanding, very physical, As a player you learned to take the punishment, but it never made sense to me. Injuries were common. It seemed senseless. I began thinking that if I ever had an opportunity to coach, I would do things my way.'
When he took over a high school team in 1943, one of the first things he did was to eliminate tackling from practice. The players worked on the skills involved in tackling as they had before. But they stopped short of clobbering their teammates. They saved that for the game ...
... St. John's and its trailblazing coach cannot prove that their football players have fewer injuries in practices than players at other schools. They're not seeking publicity or measuring themselves against other college teams. 'We're not trying to convert anybody,' Coach Gagliardi says. 'We're just trying to survive.'
Yet it's evident that players on his team spend less time in the trainer's room than do their counterparts on other college football teams. I asked about Johnnies players injured during the previous season. He hesitated a moment before replying, 'One of our stars got hurt because he jumped out of a bunk bed. We had another guy who injured himself changing a tire.' If a player had been hurt in practice, he forgot to mention it.'"
No doubt Cantu's suggestions will draw discussion and some disagreement. There is a school of thought that injuries will increase and become more severe if young athletes don't learn how to tackle in football, check in hockey or initiate other forms of sports body contact properly and safely. Cantu's book comes out in September.