Concussion Expert: No Tackling, Heading, or Checking Under Age 14

Leading concussion expert Dr. Robert Cantu has recommended that children not participate in tackle football, head the ball in soccer, or do full-body checking in hockey until they are fourteen. This recommendation represents a dramatic shift from current standards: Pop Warner offers tackle football for kids as young as five, and the American Youth Soccer Organization allows coaches to teach purposeful heading at age 10. USA Hockey allows full-body checking to begin at age 13.

On today’s episode of the new show Katie, with Katie Couric, Dr. Cantu states his position firmly.

“Some of the impacts in youth sports are as significant as the impact of a car crash,” Dr. Cantu said on the show, citing a study that used technology to measure the impact of hits in real time. “Some second graders are receiving hits that have the same impact as high schoolers.”

Mom Joan Pelly knows the dangers of concussions all too well. Her son Eric died in 2006, at the age of 18, following a concussion.

Eric Pelly, who died at age 18, was posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Dr. Cantu writes about Eric in his book, Concussions and and Our Kids:

“Eric suffered a concussion in a rugby match when he was bashed in the temple with another player’s knee. He was hospitalized for three days and released. A week later he was having dinner with his family, collapsed at the table, and died.”

Eric played football, rugby, hockey, and basketball: sports that often involve collisions. After his death, he was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) by the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, the same “brain bank” that posthumously diagnosed CTE in college football player Owen Thomas and NFL player Junior Seau.

After the Center’s report came back, it was clear that Eric, who played football, rugby, hockey and basketball, had had more concussions than anyone had realized.

“Looking back, I can see that there were some very minute changes in his behavior, but I didn’t know that he’d had a head injury, so I didn’t know what to make of them,” Ms. Pelly told show host Katie Couric.

“One night at the dinner table, I referred to something we had talked about two nights before, and he said, ‘we never talked about that.’ Another time he left a wet towel hanging over the banister, something he would never do. I asked him why the towel was there, and he looked at me, dumbfounded, and said, ‘I don’t know, but it’s my towel.'”

I attended the taping of today’s show on Wednesday, and was particularly struck by Ms. Pelly’s advice to parents:

“I am very sorry…I know that there was information out there that I didn’t read. I advise parents to learn as much as you can about head injuries, and be very strong with your children.”

Parents need to reinforce that kids must report any head injuries and any symptoms to their parents and coaches, she said, even if they think they weren’t hit hard.

“You never go back into a game after a head injury,” Ms. Pelly said, fighting back tears.

Megan Donnelly, 16, urges young athletes to take concussions seriously.

Sixteen-year-old Megan Donnelly was another guest on the show. Over the last year, she’s had significant balance issues, headaches, and nausea due to a concussion that happened while playing ice hockey. This wasn’t her first concussion, though. Megan said she’s had “three, maybe more.”

While her parents are busy disagreeing on whether Megan should ever return to sports, Megan seemed to be forming her own opinion on the matter after participating in the show.

“I just want you all of you out there who have also suffered from concussions to know that they can be very serious,” she said in a separately taped segment for Katie. “I just watched a clip of someone who got a concussion and died because of it. So I want all of you out there just to be careful.”

Dr. Cantu is recommending changes and increased awareness in almost all sports, not just those that are typically thought of us “collision sports.” On the show and in his book, he said that batting helmets should have chin straps to keep them from falling off when kids are running the bases, and headfirst slides should be eliminated entirely at the youth level.

Cheerleading coaches need to be on the lookout for fatigue that can lead to “pyramid collapse,” Dr. Cantu writes, noting that “the incidence of concussion in flyers in cheerleading is more than tenfold what it is in football players.” Education needs to be pushed in synchronized swimming, which has shockingly high rates of concussion. (During a single two-week training session, half of the women in the women’s Olympic team suffered concussions. Half.)

Backstage, I asked Dr. Cantu why he picked the age of fourteen.

“We have to start somewhere,” he said. “I wouldn’t be sad if it was eighteen. But at age fourteen, the skull is about 90% of what it will be as an adult. It’s more in proportion to the body, and the neck is better able to support it.”

Dr. Cantu also explained that at age fourteen, the brain has developed a fair amount of myelin, a protective fatty sheath that shields nerve endings. However, by no means is the myelin done being developed at that age.

At the end of the show, Ms. Couric emphasized that she’s not “anti-sports,” she’s just “pro-safety,” and I feel the same way. My younger two kids are both going to try soccer for the first time this fall–but not until I’ve talked with the coaches about how they handle concussions, and ensured that they don’t do any heading. They’re only six and eight years old, and their little noggins are far too important for me to feel awkward or bashful about talking to the coaches.

You can read my thoughts on being “that mom” with coaches, Why Checking Up On Coaches Is Every Mom’s Job, at

(Photo Credits: iStockphoto, Pelly Family, Katie)

Read more from Joslyn at Babble Pets and at her blog, stark. raving. mad. mommy. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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