March 5, 2018

How Youth Football Programs are Adapting to Protect Youth Athletes

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Sports participation among youth in the U.S. is on the rise and has been for some time. Over 30 million kids take part in a youth sport.  As the number of players increases, so too does the number of injuries – both mild and serious.

More than 3.5 million children aged under 14 go to the hospital from sports injuries every year. And it is not just sports like football that are affected; most major sports involve injury.
Physical injury in sports is one of a parent’s biggest concerns. Kids that are involved in sports can reap countless benefits. They can have fun, get some exercise, and learn crucial life skills such as teamwork and goal-setting. But every time a child enters a field or court, parents can’t help but worry that they may get hurt.

The likelihood of injury depends on the sport. Coaches and parents must take a more active role in these injury-prone activities to help reduce the risk. The type of gear the children wear, certain restrictions on playing depending on the child’s age, and behavior discipline all contribute to reducing the risk of getting hurt.

Rising Incidence
As sports get more competitive, there is a higher chance of injuries. This is especially true of football. Injuries are more common in football than in most other sports. Over the 18 years between 1990 and 2008, youth football injuries rose by nearly 30%.  Sprains and strains represented the most common types of injuries. Kids ages 12 to 17 were the ones most likely to suffer from football injuries.
Among team sports, basketball comes in second in terms of youth injuries.

In-game injuries are one thing, while injuries during practice represent a whole other problem. Most youth sport injuries (62%) occur in practice. Part of the reason is that a third of parents don’t require kids take the same precautions in practice as they do in games.

For those who used to think that boys have it worse off, the numbers show otherwise. Girls and boys get injured with similar frequencies, and in some sports (those in which girls and boys play together) girls suffer from more injuries.

Reducing youth sports injury is clearly important and achieving that reduction requires better gear and rule changes in terms of in-game play and general behavior.

Changing the Rules
In response to the growing incidence of injury, major youth sports programs are taking action. Among other things, they are advising on gear and monitoring and changing the rules of gameplay.


Youth organizations like USA Basketball and Pop Warner (for football) are acknowledging injury and advising the use of more protective gear. Pro basketball-quality mouth guards, for example, can help to greatly reduce injury in youth basketball.

In football, better protective sleeves/shorts,,a mouth guard, and chin strap are all welcome measures to help reduce injury.

Pop Warner decided to test a smaller version of football to reduce incidents of injury. The changes involved include a smaller field, fewer players per team, the prohibition against linemen taking a three-point stance (they must crouch), mandatory rotation of positions for players and matching up of similar-sized players.

Other sports have seen similar gameplay rule changes in recent years. In 2014, the U.S. Soccer Federation officially ruled out the use of headers for children under ten. U.S. ice hockey also followed suit.

The objective in all these cases, and with all these changes, is to ensure children play sports longer by reducing their rate of injury. Reducing contact, or navigating how it occurs, is a big part of that.

With its safety-first approach, Pop Warner has always instituted an age and weight matrix in its team formation to reduce the risk of injury. Now, they are also focused on how coaches monitor the athletes while they are in games and practice.

Behavioral changes also mean young athletes learn the importance of fair play, especially in football. The Heads-Up Football program launched in 2014 by USA Football attempted to teach kids better, safer ways to tackle. Pop Warner also reduced the amount of contact allowed in practices, showing again that injuries are not just problems during games.

Evolving programs
The goal of any youth sports program should be to let kids have fun while promoting health, their sense of responsibility, and teamwork. A focus on safety is an integral aspect. The trend these days, as shown by Pop Warner, is to focus on developing better players.

For example, there is no tallying of touchdowns by a player in a Pop Warner football game. USA Basketball gives extensive advice on preventing basketball injuries.

These two programs and others like them today work to produce kids that know how to work together, on and off the field or court, and who have a larger sense of purpose. Keeping the children safe is part of that package.

With the rule changes instituted by the programs, the greater attention that coaches are giving to the athletes in practice and in games, as well as the care and attention of their parents, kids who are active in sports are better protected than ever before.

Well-Rounded Players
Just as research on football injuries in pro football led to public awareness and then better safety measures at the top level of the game, it is research into youth injuries that is causing youth programs to change their rules.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that nearly half of all youth sports injuries are preventable. Changing the rules to improve safety is, therefore, a solution that’s a long time coming. Importantly, it is not just changes in the rules that will produce the effect desired. There must be greater awareness among kids, parents, and coaches alike about the importance of safety measures.

While it may be too soon to assess the full impact of these rule changes, they are made in good faith and will lead to better play, better teams, and more well-rounded players. These players will develop a better respect for the game and for each other.

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