The relative risk of injury in youth sports is a topic that is attracting growing national attention and debate. And it should…for a number of important reasons. Of course, no physical activity – sport or otherwise – is free from the risk of serious injury, but few will argue that the physical and social benefits of youth sports participation don't far outweigh the risk of injury.
The biggest challenge, however, is the consideration of what constitutes an “acceptable” risk of injury. Injury risk is based on injury data, and injury data is obviously gathered through injury research. The difference between acceptable risk based on relatively sterile research data and acceptable risk based on personal experience can obviously be a great divide. No one wants to see even one serious injury in boys’ or girls’ lacrosse, particularly if that injury occurs to a son or daughter, and that’s where emotion and research understandably collide.
I have an 11-year-old son who plays soccer, basketball and lacrosse…and a 12 ½ year-old daughter who plays soccer and lacrosse. So, the combination of perspective and knowledge that my roles as parent and NGB CEO provide is somewhat unique. I understand both the power of emotion and the value of knowledge when it comes to youth sports injury. And, it’s vitally important for all parents to become more knowledgeable about their child’s youth sports experience and the risk of injury that comes with it.
The nature of rules and the use of protective equipment in particular sports is understandably the first area of focus when serious injuries occur and, in fact, they are potentially very powerful interventions and must be a constant area of consideration. Concussion is a growing concern in all sports, including girls’ and boys’ lacrosse, for example, and significant rule changes focused on reducing the risk of concussion in both games have already been announced for the 2011 season.
But education is potentially even more powerful in changing behavior and reducing injury. Teaching a sport correctly is the most fundamental way to minimize injury, but how do we know that our child’s coach is teaching girl's or boy's lacrosse correctly...according to both the letter and spirit of the rules?
While national certification standards for lacrosse coaches are provided by US Lacrosse, as they are by the governing bodies of every other amateur sport, the vast majority of youth leagues and high schools don’t require sport-specific education as minimum qualification required of their lacrosse coaches. The flawed assumption is that anyone who played lacrosse is qualified to coach lacrosse…as if anyone who attended school is eligible and qualified to be a teacher. Why do parents simply assume that their child’s coaches are qualified to teach/coach lacrosse? What due diligence do parents undertake before dropping off their most precious and vulnerable possession at the first practice of a particular team? These are questions that deserve serious contemplation.
What if parents – the consumers in this equation – demanded that the coaches within their child’s youth or high school program be held to a minimum educational standard (including a national criminal background check) in order to qualify to coach their child? What if the leaders of lacrosse programs required their coaches to make the commitment to become certified lacrosse coaches? There is no question that it would make a significant difference in the quality and safety of our children’s lacrosse experience -- it already has in the handful of programs throughout the country that have embraced such a requirement for their coaches. Would it drive away some coaches who don't want to make the commitment or feel they are somehow above such a requirement? Perhaps…but are they really the people we want responsible for the education and safety of our kids?