Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

Youth sports and community resilience

Got a another letter from my son.  In his spare time, he is the Director of Referees for the Virginia Youth Soccer Association and coaches as well.  I really like what he has to say about youth sports and community resilience.

I am a traditionalist.  There are four bowls that count (and they don’t have corporate names), belly putters are for sissies, and it should be a crime for the World Series to run into November.  However, if there is a greater good associated with any change, my sense of realism kicks in.  The Virginia Youth Soccer Association recently banned heading for 10 year-olds and below.  There have even been whisperings of setting a minimum age for tackle football.  As a traditionalist, my first reaction to these ideas was to blame lawyers and our litigious society.  While these changes may have been brought on by lawsuits; I believe that they will have the effect of improving our community health, of raising the level of play in the long run, and potentially increasing participation and therefore will have a positive impact on our communities.

Even the most ardent traditionalist must concede at this point that significant amounts of head trauma will have deleterious effects on health later in life.  Mike Webster and Junior Seau are just two of many examples of NFL players whose lives have been cut short due to the effects of concussions.  Recent research has pointed to the potential for significant negative effects from repeated sub-concussive blows.  We also know that by their early teens, many children have ceased to participate in organized sports.   So if we delay the point at which these children are subjected to concussive and sub-concussive blows from heading and/or tackling, it follows that we will improve their health later in life.  This also means that the bodies of those children that are subjected to such blows are better equipped to withstand them.  I submit that the mayor’s health is much less critical to a community’s resilience than that of the residents of his municipality [NB:  Not sure most mayors would agree, but...].  We may not realize the benefits for 50+ years, but wouldn’t our communities be better off with less dementia and less suicide?

Raising the level of play may not seem like a key factor in resilience, and but I believe that it would have a positive impact.  I coach in a league that recently eliminated throw-ins in soccer in favor of kick-ins.  This means that I now have one less thing to teach my young charges.  Instead of giving them one more thing to think about, I can give them extra repetitions of more critical skills.  If a peewee football coach doesn’t have to teach tackling, he can spend more time on teaching receivers how to run routes and defensive backs how to cover those routes.  Yes, coaches of middle school age kids will have to spend time on those skills, but they should have to spend less time on the skills that the previous coaches were able to zero in on.  The net result should be an overall better quality of play.  While I love to win, I take even more pride in knowing that I’ve done a job to the best of my ability.   I have to believe that the collective impact of the resulting ‘warm-fuzzies’ would have a powerful impact on the mental health of a community.  Watch families leave a youth sports event.  Regardless of the outcome, there are players and parents on both sides beaming and players and parents on both sides with a ‘meh’ attitude.  Would an improved level of play not decrease the number of people on the ‘meh’ side of the equation?  The impact of the improved play may not have as long term an effect as reducing the exposure to serious head trauma, but the effect is undoubtedly there.  The collective increase in endorphin levels achieved by increasing the level of play will have a positive impact on mental well-being and improve resilience.

Our nation has an obesity crisis.  We are fat.  If more of our youth play sports, if they play sports until later in life, if we can shift the impact of head trauma until after their bodies are equipped to handle it; our youth will undeniably burn more calories.  If we reduce the amount of head trauma, increase the positive reinforcement due to improved quality of play and reduce the cost to participate (fewer pads in football, lower insurance premiums for sports leagues), we will undoubtedly increase and prolong participation.  If the entire community buys in, those athletes will be exposed to additional nutrition counseling because they will have additional doctor’s visits for sports physicals and the like.   Not every youth sports coach is going to preach the benefits of eating a healthy diet, but some will.  The longer a child participates in sports, the greater is the chance that he or she will be exposed to such healthy messages.  Unhealthy habits are lifestyle Benedict Arnolds.  The fewer traitors we have, the greater the chance we have of winning the war on obesity.  The better we do in the war on obesity, the more resilient we are.

On a surface level, changes like eliminating heading and tackling in youth sports may seem reactionary and knee-jerk.  Usually, we think of unintended consequences in a negative way.  I know that the changes in soccer specifically were a result of lawsuits and I doubt that the individuals who proposed those changes gave any thought to the positive benefits besides the decreased exposure to lawsuits.  However, the biggest benefit of those changes may be increased resilience of our communities due to the unintended consequence of improving our community health in the long run by increasing participation over a longer period of time.

Thanks, Matt.