The safety movement in youth sports has never been more prominent as concerns over concussions have grown.
Football and soccer are two sports that have received much of the scrutiny, but new guidelines and procedures enforced at the local level are attempting to ease concerns.
For the first time, the Boys & Girls Club’s football league had a certified trainer through United Regional at every game last fall to address any injuries that arose.
“He was able to diagnose some injuries that if he wasn’t there, we wouldn’t have known,” Boys & Girls Club Athletic Director Jason Richardson said. “In the past two years, we’ve had four concussions, and that’s with more than 600 kids playing anywhere from eight to 11 games a season.”
Richardson said his three youth football divisions usually total about 650 participants, but that number dropped to 580 during the 2014 season. He believes national studies released just before fall on the long-term impact of concussions suffered playing football was responsible for the decrease.
But the club’s participation level rose by 50 boys to 630 in 2015. Richardson said having a trainer on site plus a change in certification to USA Football two years ago triggered the boost.
“I think it helped bring people back and they could see we have a safer program,” he said. “The USA Football certification is a six-hour class online that’s endorsed by the NCAA. It covers not only concussion awareness, but also teaches blocking and hitting fundamentals.”
Football wasn’t the only youth sport that took steps to make its game safer. In 2012, the National Academy of Sciences reported soccer was the sport with the highest risk of concussions for girls.
The U.S. Soccer Federation took measures in November to ensure safety in youth soccer by curtailing heading the ball. No headers will be allowed for children 10 or younger and headers will be limited in practice for ages 11-18.
While the rules are mandatory for youth national teams and development academies, not all local levels have to abide by the guidelines. Referee Chairman Frank Barboza said the Greater Wichita Falls Soccer Association does follow U.S. Soccer rules and is preparing for the changes.
“We’re going to try and phase it in by the upcoming spring season, and next fall it will be mandatory,” Barboza said. “There’s going to be growing pains for everyone. Concussions are a big thing, and refs have been trained on what to look for and re-entry of players.”
Rider girls soccer coach Carl Wiersema, who has coached at the youth level as well as high-school age, said restrictions at the youth level can be difficult because parents coaching might not know how to teach proper techniques.
“It’s definitely a cautious approach. I can see it for the younger ages,” Wiersema said. “I think it’s a little ridiculous from an educational standpoint because you have to teach them how to do it correctly and safely before they do it in a game.
“It’s a Catch 22 because you want to keep the game safe, but then they don’t know how to do it safely.”
Concussions will never be eliminated from contact sports, but two Wichita Falls youth leagues are making changes to ensure their top priority is player safety.