By Dev Mishra, M.D.
President, Sideline Sports Doc
Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Stanford University
- US Soccer recently recommended several changes to rules about heading the ball for younger age groups, designed to decrease the risk of concussion
- US Soccer’s moves follow the changes implemented by other organizations such as USA Hockey and USA Football to minimize injury risk amongst the younger players
- The theory overall is that minimizing injury risk in the youngest age groups through rules changes will keep kids playing the sport longer
- USA Hockey is one of the few US youth sports seeing substantial enrollment increases between 2009 and 2015, with the changes in safety rules for the youngest players often cited by parents as a factor in promoting the sport for their kids
- My opinion is that rules changes like these are necessary to grow each sport, or at the least to stem the tide of declining participation
Today’s post contains a lot of personal opinion, backed by science, data, and what I think is common sense. My guess is that my opinions will be totally dismissed by some or found to be controversial by many.
My fundamental beliefs are that lifelong exercise is critically important to the health of increasingly obese adults, and that proper sport participation as kids can lead to great habits as adults. I also believe that team and individual sports can be great for many, many kids, and that those kids who are especially gifted or motivated should be given opportunities to advance to the elite or professional levels.
The facts, however, reveal declining sport participation in almost all US team sports, as shown in the graphic. Several excellent studies have been conducted by independent organizations as well as internal data collected by sports governing groups. Parents across many sports typically cite the same negative influences in deciding which activities to cut back on:
- Time commitments
- Cost, especially travel teams
- “Professionalization” of youth sports
- Injury risk, especially in collision or contact sports
Rules changes designed to reduce injury risk are amongst the most effective ways to decrease traumatic injuries (such as concussion) and overuse injuries. When combined with changes addressing some of the other common concerns the result can be dramatic growth of participation. This has been proven by one of the organizations to first implement broad changes in the youngest age groups, USA Hockey.
Some of the changes included in USA Hockey’s American Development Model (ADM) include elimination of its 12 and under national championship (reducing interstate travel), ban body checking in the under 14 age groups (reducing traumatic injury risk), and even encouraging players to play multiple sports.
Five years in to the ADM we see that youth hockey participation in the US is up by 44%.
Changes such as rules on heading the ball for young soccer players are sure to create an emotionally negative response from game traditionalists- at least initially. But over time my prediction is that sports such as football and soccer will be able to use these changes to effectively stem the tide of declining participation in the same way hockey has done.
So you get to choose. Do you want to take steps to grow your sport and ensure its survival or do you want to ignore the trends and see it slowly disappear?