The Brain on Youth Sports

The Brain on Youth Sports


By Greg Bach

Young athletes exposed to repetitive brain trauma in high contact sports before their teen years are at risk of facing long-term health consequences, says a leading neuroscientist who has been studying repetitive impacts for more than a decade.  

“All kids should have the opportunity to play sports, but I think that we can do it in a safer way,” says Dr. Julie Stamm, author of THE BRAIN ON YOUTH SPORTS: THE SCIENCE, THE MYTHS, AND THE FUTURE. “We need to value kids’ health, value their brains, and value their futures.”

She advocates for kids playing flag football rather than tackle, for example, until their brains are more fully developed.    

“Let’s protect brains and wait to play the form of sports that involve those repetitive brain impacts and repetitive hits,” Stamm says. “We can still play sports and we can still play all the sports we love, but maybe we just play a different version until we’re a little bit older before we play the version that involves those repetitive impacts. Kids can still get all the good out of sports without the risk for long-term consequences.”

Younger athletes, slower movements and smaller bodies can still lead to big problems in sports that involve repetitive hits to the head, Stamm points out.  

“They are smaller and they aren’t moving as fast as the older players, but a child’s head is disproportionately large compared to their body so their head is kind of like a Bobblehead,” she explains. “Their necks are weaker, so the forces felt by their brains are very similar to those forces that are felt by your high school and college players. And what we’re finding is it may not show up right away but those repetitive impacts over time can take a toll on the brain. We used to think that if you didn’t have concussion symptoms those impacts didn’t matter and now  we know that they do.”

Stamm, a three-sport athlete in high school and currently a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has been researching concussions, sub-concussive impacts, CTE, and the consequences of repetitive brain trauma in youth for years.

“We used to think concussions weren’t a big deal as long as you didn’t lose consciousness and now we know that’s not true either,” Stamm says. “I think we need to use a little common sense: we know that emotional abuse, trauma, and neglect physically changes the brain and the age that happens affects specific structures in the brain. So, I don’t know why we would think that repetitively hitting our head and the physical trauma of doing so would be different? I think we need to take the information we have now and act in the best interests of kids while we are still doing research and continuing to learn, because that’s an important part, too.”

Check out the insights she shared on a variety of issues:

SPORTINGKID LIVE: What age do you recommend is safe to start contact sports?

DR. STAMM: I don’t think there’s a perfect age to start hitting your head repeatedly, to be honest. But the research we’ve done so far, we have seen differences between those who started before age 12 and those who started at 12 or later. I personally think if you can, wait until high school because that allows more time for the brain to develop, and there are many examples of people who waited until high school and were very successful athletes. I advocate for focusing on building athleticism when you’re younger. If you are a great athlete, you can pick up a lot of different skills, including tackling, when you get a little bit older.

SKL: Parents are in a tough spot when their kids show an interest in wanting to play tackle football, so how would you suggest they navigate this decision?

DR. STAMM: Having the stance of it’s not a “no” it’s just a “not now” is important. Explain to them that they can play flag football, or some other form, where they can learn about the game and that tackle is something they can work up to. There are very successful NFL players who didn’t play tackle until they were older. So it’s not that they are not going to play football, it’s just that they are not tackling until they are older.

SKL: What would be your advice for recreation leaders regarding the types of sports programs they offer?

DR. STAMM: I think by offering more of these non-contact options, especially when they are younger, that might bring more kids into programs. So instead of only offering contact options that some parents are not OK with, we can start that cycle by offering other options.

SKL: Are soccer programs that don’t allow heading until age 14, for example, and hockey programs that don’t allow checking at the younger age levels effective in helping to protect kids?

DR. STAMM: When you think about a career of accumulated impacts, the younger we start the more impacts we’re going to have; and the more impacts we sustain the greater the risk for long-term difficulties. So waiting to start those impacts until a child is older not only lets the brain continue to develop – which has its own benefits for the long-term – but it also decreases those lifetime impacts and decreases the risk of CTE and other long-term problems.

SKL: Why are you so passionate about this topic?

DR. STAMM: I’ve seen what concussions can do to kids and I’ve seen how it can disrupt so much of their life, and it can have a profound effect on not just their sports but school and their social relationships. I’ve also seen the consequences of repetitive brain trauma. Kids shouldn’t have to worry about long-term consequences. We don’t want what they do when they’re 10 to affect them when they are 50. Kids can get all the benefits of sports without the long-term consequences if we just shift the culture a bit and protect the brain.

Follow Dr. Julie Stamm on Instagram @juliestammphd and Twitter @JulieStammPhD

Concussion Health Safety Brain Injury Football Tackling

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