Brain Damage: Is Sports Worth It?

Participation in organized sports can lead to brain damage. Participation also provides incredible physical benefits and the development of mental toughness and life skills. But, is possible brain damage worth the risk?

Despite the benefits, some sports represents a threat to the brain and the mental health of our children. According to the Amen Clinics, over 2 million new head injuries take place in the United States every year and the numbers of concussions catapulted 71% among ages 10 to 19 from 2010 to 2015. Concussions regularly occur in sports most notably football, soccer, hockey, rugby, MMA, lacrosse, baseball, and even gymnastics, cheer, skiing, and basketball.

What does the research show about brain damage?

Research by U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University examined the brains of 91 deceased football players and found signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in 96 percent of them. CTE, a progressive degeneration of the brain, can impact an athlete well into a player’s retirement. This was the subject of the film Concussion starring Will Smith who played the forensic pathologist and neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu who discovered the brain damage associated with CTE.

Interestingly, the evidence points to repeated minor blows to the head as more hazardous over a period of years than a single violent hit. Researchers indicate changes in the brain can start months, years, or decades after the last trauma to the brain or the end of active athletic participation (Boston University CTE Center). Changes from CTE include memory loss, controlling impulses, depression, dementia, confusion, impaired judgement, and aggression.

Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) are serious. They impact mental health difficulties such as trouble focusing, outbursts of anger, confusion, memory struggles, increased anxiety and/or depression, mood swings, and other erratic behavior. If an athlete demonstrate signs of such mental health issues, looking at the brain through a spect scan aides in the diagnosis of brain damage, treatment, and healing.

Who is taking notice of this possible brain damage?

This possible danger to the brain grabbed the attention of Chris Borland, an NFL rookie who decided a 4-year contract worth 3 million dollars with the San Francisco 49ers was not worth the risk of brain damage. He told ESPN, “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk…I’m concerned if you wait you have symptoms, it’s too late.” (Fox News, 2015)

Soccer, the most popular sport in the world represents the third most common sport for injuries and the leading cause of concussions among girls. One study of soccer-related injuries among ages 7 to 17-year-old athletes making ER visits revealed concussion incidence increased nearly 1600% between 1990 and 2014.  More than likely, this increase is the result of the improvement of the recognition and diagnosis of concussions.

Youth organizations and parents also are taking notice. Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football program, experienced a drop after hitting an all-time peak in 2010. Spokespersons for Pop Warner admit the NFL concussion findings contributed to the decline in numbers but they also indicated more youth are focusing on a single sport over playing multiple sports.

What are the benefits of sports?

The health and mental benefits of physical activity including participating in sports remains undeniable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) strongly encourages parents to keep children and adolescents active. According to the CDC such involvement reduces obesity, type 2 Diabetes, the risk of cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Studies confirm the benefit of physical activity with less depression and anxiety often yielding better results than medication.

The Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) reports coaches and parents believe the life lessons gained through sports prepares young people for the reality of adult life. Life lessons include teamwork, respect for authority, confidence, motivation, communication skills, hard work, resilience, goal setting, follow-through, focus, leadership, and others.

Staying in sports pays off later when looking for a job. Many corporate recruiters seek candidates who have athletic experience knowing they are more likely to have the skill set to perform well. Athletes embody the physical capacity to work and not get sick. They often contain the mental and emotional capacity to function in a fast-pace, high learning curve, team culture.

What can we do to make it worth it?

Reducing serious injuries including brain damage without removing young people from participating in sports appears to be one challenge before our athletic culture. Youth organizations similar to the NCAA and NFL have limited full-contact practices and changed game-time rules to better protect players.

As parents, make sure proper coaching certification is in place. Look for coaches associated with USA Football, a national organization certifying coaches and the only football coaching program certified by the National Council for Accreditation of Coaching Education (NCACE). Their system comprises specific drills and techniques to help athletes grow and improve in stages. The goal is to develop a better athlete not just a better football player. Find football programs teaching heads up tackling or rugby style tackling. The head should not be used as a means for pushing through a pile of players.

Likewise, commit to programs and schools which actively train coaches, officials, athletes, and parents in the life skills and the mental health aspect of sports. PCA, noted above and Safe Sport have certified thousands nationwide through live workshops, online courses, and books. These organizations assist with improving leaders, coaches, athletes, and parents with hands-on instruction in their respective roles. In addition, seek teams and leagues which follow proper safety procedures and the handling of injuries when they do happen.

Technology also continues to contribute to improvement. Some helmets now on the market contain a chemical strip that lights up if a hit is sustained hard enough to result in a concussion. It improves the ability to recognize if brain damage has occurred and decreases the athlete or coach dismissal a concussion has happened.

What’s the bottom line?

Ultimately, parents and athletes must decide if the risk of violent sports like football, hockey, cheer, and soccer where the head is primarily impacted remains worth it. Proper training both physically and mentally improves chances of keeping the beneficial aspects of participation while limiting the dangers such as brain damage. Changing sports to less violent options remains a choice in protecting the brain as does playing multiple sports rather than continuing all year training in a fierce game like football or soccer. Regardless, discuss the matter and find a balance that works in keeping both physically and mentally fit.

Kip Rodgers, LPC-S

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