Football is arguably the most popular sport in America, sorry baseball, and some areas of the country are downright cult-like in their worship of the sport. With football players and the sport itself being held in such high esteem it’s natural to want to watch players perform at the highest level possible. How do players get to be good? Natural talent, hard work and practice, practice, practice.
The problem with the sport, as of late, is the fact that kids are beginning to play competitive tackle football at younger and younger ages, and are therefore susceptible to severe damaging injuries at very young ages before their bodies are anywhere close to fully developed.
Kids as young as five years old are playing tackle football in America. In 2012, 3 million kids aged 6-14 were playing organized youth football, and that’s all before they hit high school competitive sports. Many organizations have a cut-off age of no younger than 14 in order to participate in tackle football due to the intense physical nature of the sport.
Although the 14-year-old age recommendation for holding children off from playing tackle football can seem somewhat arbitrary, medical professionals as well as parents do have important reasoning behind that choice of age.
Kids are not just mini-adults. Although kids’ heads grow quickly, with age 4 showing them to be 90% of the size of an adult head, their necks are much weaker than an adult’s neck. This can create a dangerous situation where a child taking a hit to the helmet, or a blow from falling, has a difficult time keeping their head steady. This can cause the brain to be shaken inside the skull far more easily than as they grow older.
Kids can also be more fearless than adults. They don’t fully understand the risks and dangers of medical injuries or consequences to their actions. As kids get older they can understand what playing tackle football can mean, as they have the ability to think the sport through with a better understanding of what the sport is and how dangerous a potential it has. A young child likely has no concept of the dangers, and could be argued may not even understand the entire sport itself.
Repeated head trauma, especially concussions, is coming to light in the sport of football and the news is not good. Starting at a younger age allows for more potential injuries, therefore limiting their football career as well as putting their quality of life in question later down the road. The human brain isn’t even fully mature until age 22 or 23, and some medical professionals fear that concussions at a younger age can be even more dangerous than those that happen to adults.
An alternative to tackle football is flag football, where kids can learn the basic rules of football without the hard-hitting tackles; it’s pretty much a no-contact version of football. Flag football allows kids to learn to run and pass the ball, learn the moves they’ll need to make as they get older and learn fundamental rules virtually without risk of injury.
Any child who is thinking about playing tackle football should be physically evaluated before actually playing. The age kids begin playing tackle football is ultimately up to their parents, coaches and local league rules. The most important thing is finding out if your child wants to play, if they are physically ready to play, and if they do start playing to make sure they are as safe and protected as possible.