Opinion Pieces

Keeping young athletes safe

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Washington, February 2, 2016 | Darin Miller (202-225-2676) | comments

As a former athlete at the University of Wisconsin, I know the positive impact sports can have on a young person’s development. During my high school wrestling years at Graham Local Schools in St. Paris, Ohio, my coach Ron McCunn taught his athletes many important lessons. Most important was his emphasis on discipline. He used to say, “Discipline is doing what you don’t want to do when you don’t want to do it.” In simple terms this meant doing things the right way when you’d rather do them the convenient way.

Each year, athletics have an outsized impact on our nation’s youth, ultimately helping them to develop into adults who can handle pressure and overcome adversity. Sports when done right instill important principles and healthy habits in young people all across America.

The benefits of youth sports are many in number and significant in impact. We know, however, that participation in any physical activity carries risk. Each time a young person goes to practice or competes, there’s a chance of injury. Each time they suit up and step on the field, the court, the track or the mat there is a real chance that someone can get hurt.

Therefore we have a responsibility to mitigate that risk to the greatest extent possible. Coaches must provide training on safe techniques at practice — which of course requires becoming educated themselves. Parents must be engaged and encourage their children to speak up when they are injured. Policymakers must, where appropriate, enact laws that put in place robust safeguards to protect athletes at every age. Recent fatalities among young athletes are stark reminders of this fact. As co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Youth Sports, I take this responsibility seriously. One fatality is one too many.

With the urgency and focus that this issue requires, we must continue to make policy that enhances sports safety and educates people so kids have the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of athletics and parents can make informed decisions. Over the years, policymakers have passed legislation that has made meaningful progress toward achieving these goals. The Lystedt laws — which passed in every state and mandate a gradual return-to-play protocol to better protect youth athletes in all sports from the risks of preventable concussions — are just a recent example of gains we’ve made. My colleagues and I are committed to building upon this progress.

Professional sports bodies are critical partners in these efforts, since they are the true experts on the inherent risks in each individual sport. Just look at the U.S. Soccer Federation’s recent recommendation banning headers for players 10 and under; the NBA’s work with USA Basketball to provide safety training and licensing for youth coaches; or the NFL’s Heads Up Football program, which teaches proper tackling and blocking techniques, educates parents and trains and certifies coaches on safety fundamentals, appropriate contact practice schedules, proper equipment fitting and how to recognize and treat concussions.

There is a significant amount of evidence to suggest that all this work is paying off. Awareness among parents and athletes is greater than ever, and importantly, data tracking is showing key reductions in particular injuries.

More people are engaged in the conversation about sports safety than ever before, and not only in this country. This October in London, the NFL convened representatives from many of the world’s major sports leagues and leading concussion experts for the second annual International Professional Sports Concussion Research Think Tank to share best practices and protocols and collaborate on ways to advance progress that will positively impact athletes of all ages and across all sports.

I am encouraged by these developments, and my colleagues and I urge all those involved with youth sports to be active in these types of efforts; this is what our Caucus on Youth Sports is all about. Through health and safety initiatives, we can work together to protect our children and all athletes from unnecessary risk so that they can get the most out of the game and reach their full potential — on and off the field.

This op-ed appeared on February 2, 2016 in the Savannah Morning News.
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