Part I: Managing concussion risks for young athletes

Concussion artPublished April 20, 2016

By SARAH DOOLITTLE, Four Points News

Austin loves football. A player since age five when he started in Pop Warner, Austin has developed a passion for the game and even falls asleep at night imagining his own made-up plays.

Now in middle school, Austin will tell you what he loves best about football. “Playing with your friends and being on a team. That feeling that you have when you’re just out there in the field with the spotlights on you. It’s just the greatest thing ever.”

Austin is not his real name. His parents asked that their family’s identity be protected, not only for privacy but also to avoid any potential repercussions for speaking openly about the game their son —  and their community — loves so much.

When asked if he likes the attention that comes from being a football player in Texas, a state that worships the sport? “Yeah,” he replies with a shy smile and small laugh.

For Austin’s parents, though, football is about more than just the many obvious benefits of playing a team sport. While they appreciate the skills their son has acquired, the hard work and teamwork he embraces as the result of playing a game he loves, they also have the responsibility of looking out for their son’s long-term well-being.

Austin has had three concussions that his parents know of, two from football and one from a fall. The worst of them occurred during football practice and was serious enough to cause, what they believe, a change Austin’s in personality and performance at school.

This report focuses on one family sharing their story about their experience which happened to involve youth football. The risk of concussion, though, is in virtually all other youth sports including soccer, basketball, hockey and lacrosse.

The Pop Warner football association is mentioned in this article because the young player was part of the organization but this article, in no way, is trying to cast any negativity toward Pop Warner football, which is a leader in its concussion protocol and has player safety as its top priority.

In Austin’s case, his parents noticed after one of his concussions that their son, normally a sweet and polite kid, suddenly had a quick temper. At a family gathering he couldn’t be indoors because the noise and lights bothered him too much.

As Austin described it, “It wasn’t even headaches. My sight would be kind of off. Lights would hurt my eyes. Loud noise would cause a ringing in my ears.”

Austin did not receive immediate medical attention after that concussion because he did not tell his parents right away, not realizing the seriousness of his symptoms. “I don’t think it would have been as bad if I’d gotten it checked out earlier, because I kept playing even though my head was hurting.”

Managing the challenges

Deciding whether or not to sit out after a hit is an inexact science. “Ultimately it’s (my decision),” said Austin, “because I’m the one who feels my head hurting or not hurting.”

He clarified, though, that, “if coach can can tell, like if I’m dizzy or something, and if I say, ‘I can go back in,’ he’ll say, ‘no, you have to sit out.’”

As Austin began to recover from his concussion, “I got an email from his math teacher,” Austin’s mom explained. “She said, ‘I gotta tell you, Austin is night and day from the fall. He’s such a good student now, he’s trying really hard, he’s so pleasant to be around.’ It’s almost like a personality change.”

Watching his injury unfold and slowly resolve over months caused Austin’s parents to feel conflicted. “As the parent, I feel really pressured to allow him to play,” said mom. “But my gut almost tells me I don’t want him to play.”

According to Austin’s dad, part of the problems resides in how teams are organized.

Pop Warner teams are organized according to size and weight. In middle school, however, “you’re playing with your grade. So you could have a 150 pound kid hitting a 90 pound kid.”

Furthermore, larger schools have more kids to choose from and smaller schools fewer, which further amplifies size discrepancies.

“He just wants to play.”

After watching his son get hit time and again at games, Austin’s dad is ready to give coaches an ultimatum. “If you can’t protect my kid, I’m taking him off the team.”

Being pulled from the sport would be a problem for this kid who, “literally said to me, ‘Mom if I die on the field playing football, I die doing what I love doing.’ He said that to me at 12 years old… That’s the level of passion,” explains his mom.

His dad emphasized, though, that when it comes to Austin’s concussion risk, “He doesn’t understand. He doesn’t care. He just wants to play. He doesn’t understand that he could end up with permanent problems.”

As if to echo his dad, when asked if he worries about getting another concussion, Austin said, “Not really. If they happen, it’s upsetting and all that… I don’t think about long term. That’s not on my mind at all.”

Austin’s mom watches her son answer, her eyes conveying the conflict each parent must face in deciding what is best for their children. “He just loves it so much. But every year it’s a constant battle for me as his mom whether I just just put my foot down and say, ‘no, you’re not going to do this anymore.’”

“I’m comfortable there,” explained Austin of football. “When I step on the field I know what I need to do. I don’t feel pressure because if I do my job and everyone else does theirs, we’ll be fine.”

“I’d be really upset and mad at them,” he said, if his parents told him he could no longer play football. “If I got in a situation where it’s really affecting me, of course I’m going to stop… But I would argue it.”

The culture of football

Due to his years of training, Austin feels a perhaps false sense of control on the field. “It’s easy to worry about anything… If you’re on a football field worrying about getting hit, you’re going to get hit. But if you go out there and play the game, you’re going to be fine, as long as you stay smart.”

Having seen a teammate carried off the field to an ambulance, however, Austin’s dad has a different attitude.

“If he gets another concussion he’s done. That’s how I feel. It’s the same as if he was a skateboarder and he broke his back… It doesn’t matter about football. It’s anything where my son is getting hurt and continuing to get hurt. I’m not going to condone it.”

Austin’s mom is quick to emphasize that coaches are not to blame. “I feel that they’re really good at keeping them off the field if there’s a problem. At least at the level that we play. If I’ve ever reached out to a coach (about Austin), they immediately were very responsive.”

Instead both parents see the intensity of the culture around football and sports in general as the bigger problem. “I don’t know how you change that. It’s not just the coaches or the schools, who are putting the pressure on (players). It’s the parents too,” said Austin’s dad.

Beyond practice, parents expect off-season conditioning, the studying of playbooks, and hot summer weeks spent in full gear training during pre-season.

Coaches, too, want their players to play one sport only. “Kids are being encouraged to pick one. That to me is  — let the kid be a kid. Let them goof off in the summer,” said Austin’s dad. He is referring to private, club sport coaches, in general, when he says “Kids are being encouraged to pick one,”and not Leander ISD middle school coaches.

“You have to be realistic.”

In hindsight, Austin’s mom said that, “If I could have done it all over again, to be honest with you, at age five when I started him in Pop Warner — we started in baseball too and soccer as well — I would have probably done tennis (instead).”

As that ship long ago sailed for their family, they instead must make the best choices with the information they have, a cobbled together picture comprised of feedback from coaches, their son, and their own participation.

As Austin’s dad sees it, their involvement is key to mitigating their son’s concussion risk. “You have to be involved. You have to be aware. And you have to be realistic.”

This is part of a series about the concussion risk in youth sports. In part two, hear from experts on the subject including a Dr. Martin Molina who worked with more than 100 concussion cases 2015. In other parts of this series, Drew Sanders, Vandegrift athletic director, and Four Points Pop Warner share about concussion protocol.