As our children return to the gridirons, pitches and fields that dot America’s schools, the same creeping concern will enter parents’ minds.
Our younger athletes who don football helmets and line up on the field, even in flag football, are still likely to receive up to 20 hits to the head this fall. Our boys and girls who lace up their soccer cleats are likely to experience some of the highest concussion rates in youth sports, with female athletes especially more likely to sustain a concussion than their male peers.
Fortunately, in the last decade, all 50 states have passed rules or laws to address concussions and other safety concerns in youth sports.
In Virginia, for example, state law requires that all schools adopt key safety provisions such as mandatory education of parents and student-athletes, removal of student-athletes in the case of suspected concussions, return-to-learn protocols and the issuing of clearance by a specified health care provider.
While state laws are an important first step toward assuring the safety of young athletes across the country, there is still much work to be done.
Even with an emphasis on statewide concussion legislation, we do not see the funds in place to assure oversight of these standards and mandates.
And we see an unequal distribution of athletic trainers in our schools: the very professionals who know when — and how — to prevent lasting injury to our children.
As a parent, researcher and certified athletic trainer, I know the risks of youth sports all too well.
At least 19 young athletes died in the United States in 2018 due to a mismanaged or unrecognized brain-, heat- or heart-related condition.
And before the fall season even starts, we have seen nine high school sports-related deaths this year.
There is one additional, unheralded opportunity that parents must take advantage of to avoid what can be fatal risks to their children — the preseason meeting.
During these meetings, certified athletic trainers or coaches will review rules, policies and responsibilities that student-athletes and their parents must adhere to, and perhaps most significantly, protocols to ensure our youth are safe and protected.
My colleagues and I will routinely participate in these types of preseason meetings, at the invitation of coaches, to address concussions.
Unfortunately, based on my experience at high schools here in Virginia and across the country, just 1 in 10 parents and student-athletes, at most, attend these meetings.
And our unpublished data, collected throughout Virginia and Texas, suggests that more than half of surveyed parents believe that parents are under-educated about concussions.
Meanwhile, preseason meetings serve as powerful opportunities to fully understand the steps and precautions we can take to protect our children’s health.
For example, student-athletes might not exhibit concussion-related symptoms for up to 24 hours after their injury on the field.
Parents can take stock of these signs or symptoms and report them to a certified athletic trainer or other health-care provider.
In sum, a parent could prevent their injured athletes from jogging back onto the field, ensuring they are more likely to experience a more typical recovery — and greatly reducing the risk of rare, but catastrophic injuries.
Parents might also learn, and make the most of, state “concussion” laws nationwide that mandate the removal of any athletes suspected of incurring head injuries on the field.
And, in this case, they will be able to follow their schools’ evidence-based concussion management and other emergency action plans, outlining the care their child will receive in case of a concussion or other injuries.
If parents join the school’s certified athletic trainer and coaches in recognizing signs and symptoms that might not only occur on the playing field, but away from it, we are far more likely to remove athletes from play before their concussion or injury leads to lasting damage.
After all, as parents, we have significantly more exposure to our children than a health-care provider ever will.
Yet, sometimes, we tend to overlook opportunities to learn information that might save the lives of our child-athlete(s).
And so, parents should attend their student-athletes’ preseason meeting this year and make sure to leverage the expertise of athletic trainers when it comes to concussion, heart and heat-related conditions and policies.
Parents can set a culture of honesty in their homes by prioritizing health over sport — and encourage their children to immediately report any symptoms they might experience.
And if they see that their school does not employ an athletic trainer, a health care professional who specializes in preventing, managing and rehabbing injuries that can have a lasting impact on our children’s well-being, it’s time to ask the question “why not?”
States are starting to make the most of the evidence in front of them and take steps to preserve the safety of our young athletes.
As parents, we need to do more than be concerned; we need to make the most of these steps and partner with our athletic staff to assure the health of our children — especially for those who might otherwise play through potentially life-threatening injuries and not recognize the consequences.