Perspectives on Childhood Athletic Involvement: Risk versus Reward

We as human beings enjoy violence. It’s in our nature. That’s why sports such as football and basketball are some of the most watched television events year in and year out. But, these sports, among all others, are also the most dangerous. Imagine this: a quarterback is dropping back for a pass, he looks to his right, but his receiver is covered. Unbeknownst to him his left tackle has just slipped, leaving the defensive end to that side a free shot at the quarterback, who with his back turned is unaware of his presence. At the last second, the quarterback feels the pressure, and begins to escape, but it is too late. The defensive end has hit the quarterback at full speed, and the quarterback had no means to defend himself. The quarterback hits the turf, concussed from the severity of the collision, and likely to miss out on the rest of his game, and possibly the next month of games. However, most importantly, this collision has injured his brain, and therefore his brain must properly heal, if it even can.

Situations such as this occur too regularly in contact sport at all levels. From the professional ranks to six-year olds learning the game for the first time, the danger of concussions are all too real. This danger is amplified for those young athletes. In “Sport Concussions and the Immature Brain,” Jordan Grafman, Ph.D. chief of cognitive neuroscience at the National Institute of Neurologic Disorders and Stroke states that, “The brain does not fully mature until at least the mid-20s.” He goes on to say that concussions sustained before this time can have a traumatic impact on the psychological development of the afflicted person. He says, “Even a mild head injury can certainly cause impairments and create problems in day-to-day functioning, particularly in higher cognitive functions, which are last to develop, as well as in social cognitive functions.”  Based off of this information, it is apparent that concussions are a very real threat, due to the relative frequency in which they occur in contact sport, and a threat that should be taken seriously, due to the serious implications they present to the development of the young child. One concussion, sustained at a critical time period for psychological development, can impair a child for the rest of his life.

So, what can be done about this problem? As a contact sport athlete, I have sustained multiple concussions throughout my playing years. I have also, however, noticed that the precautions taken for concussion prevention have also steadily increased in number and proclivity as my career has progressed. In the sport of football, along with other sports, companies that produce helmets have designed state-of-the-art headgear for the modern athlete. These pieces of equipment have been specifically produced to reduce concussions in both number and severity. Along with this, athletic trainers and medical personnel have, due to their increased knowledge of concussion onset and symptoms, developed better standards for diagnosing and treating concussions and their systems, and most importantly for knowing when to allow an athlete back on the field post-concussion. However, in young athletes the best way to fix this problem is simple, knowledge. It is important for parents to know when their child is mature enough to handle contact sport and its demands. It is important for parents, coaches, and trainers of these young children to know when a child might be concussed. Most importantly, it is a must that these children know how to play the game they choose the correct way, in a way that will prevent injury to themselves and to others. Only through this will concussions occur less frequently, and the danger of developmental impairment due to concussions decrease.

Written by: Patton Robinette

I, unlike Patton, did not grow up a star quarterback.  In fact, I consider my childhood self rather athletically-challenged.  I remember even trying to find ways to avoid participating in Phys. Ed. in elementary school.  As nearly all middle-class children do, though, I had a requisite extracurricular activity which consumed my time and my parents’ money.  I was a dancer—a ballerina—for ten years of my childhood.  I eventually quit dance to focus on school as I entered my teenage years, but I loved it, and there is no doubt that it helped shape my identity.

For many, dance is as much of a sport as soccer or track or basketball.  It is physically demanding, requires both technique and strength, and has a competitive aspect to it.  Others argue that there is no “game” component, and it is instead more of an art.  They liken it to theatre and music more than to football or baseball.  As a dancer myself, I always thought dance was definitely a sport.  However, once I got to college, my experiences instilled in me a new perspective.  For the past three years I have been the varsity men’s coxswain on the Vanderbilt Rowing Team.  I do not row or workout with the men, maintaining my lack of athletic prowess, but despite that, I consider myself more an athlete now that I ever did while dancing.  I competed as a dancer, so it’s not the competition part that is different.  It’s the team mentality.

I got to wondering, how am I different from all my peers who grew up playing soccer or football or any other sport where they had this team mentality?  I’m more selfish, that is for sure.  I seem to do equally well in school, but I cringe when assigned a group project.  I consider myself pretty well adjusted, but would I have better social interactions or more emotional stability if I had grown up as a teammate?  As a young woman who hopes to be a mother one day, what will be best for my future children?  Should they be pushed into a sport, even if they’re hesitant?  Are the potential psychological rewards greater than the risk of debilitating injury, like Patton discussed?

Numerous scientists and psychologists have researched the impact of athletics on child development.  This research often results in vague conclusions or apparent correlations but no certainty of causative relationships between sport and child development.  This is understandable considering the complexity and vastness of the potential confounding variables in any study of this sort.  A recent study from a professor in Germany, Christina Felfe, though, provides empirical evidence for the effect of young children’s sport involvement on social and cognitive development.  She and her team studied over five thousand children, aged three to ten years old, throughout Germany, and measured the differences among them.  They analyzed the child’s cognitive skills, non-cognitive skills, well-being, and health and compared the sport-playing children to those not participating in organized sport.  The results are summarized in the table below; all scores are given in standard deviations off of mean zero, with lower values corresponding to better outcomes.



Based on Felfe’s results, the rewards of growing up involved in a sport are apparent.  Well-being, as well as both cognitive and non-cognitive (emotional, social, behavioral) skills, are heightened in those children who participate in athletics.  What Felfe and her colleagues did not consider, though, was how these results became magnified or overshadowed as the child grows into an adult.  The next step is a longitudinal study comparing the development and overall well-being of sport-participants versus non-participants.  Impact of gender on the influence of sport on one’s development would also be an interesting research topic.

I would hypothesize that early sport involvement instills values that could potentially last a lifetime.  Every part of one’s environment is impactful and shapes and molds the individual, especially at very young ages, so it makes sense to guess that sports would be no different.  Personally, a large part of me wishes I had been exposed to some sort of team-oriented activity more as a child.  At the same time, though, being the strong-headed younger I was, I likely would have resisted.

Every parent wants what is best for his or her child.  In the end, no parent is going to be able to manipulate his or her child’s environment to the point that all aspects of it are ideal.  Based on the research, athletics do foster positive child development.  As Patton elaborated on, however, risk of injury is important to consider.  Does the risk outweigh the potential rewards?  In my opinion, no.  If we live our lives never taking any chances, we will never see any growth.

Written by: Stephanie


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