Youth sports are gearing up for an active fall season, but in Alabama, a new law, the Coach Safely Act, is helping change the landscape of youth athletics. It is designed to address public concerns about sports injuries for youth athletes 14 and younger, a population that is estimated to be seven times larger than older athletes. Every year, more than 3.5 million kids younger than 14 receive medical treatment for sports-related injuries nationwide.
In April, lawmakers enacted the Alabama Coach Safely Act, which requires every volunteer coach of children aged 14 and younger in the state that coaches a “high-risk youth athletics activity where there is a likelihood that a child or youth can sustain a serious injury” to complete a no-cost course in youth sports injury recognition and prevention. The law is the first of its kind and is the culmination of an advocacy campaign, Youth Sports Injury Prevention Initiative (YSIPI). The campaign involved thought leaders in coaching, sports medicine, and public health who were looking to increase the awareness, prevention, and recognition of injuries, including concussions, heat and exertion illnesses, trauma and overuse, and sudden cardiac arrest, and to how to implement an emergency action plan.
The Alabama Head Injury Foundation (AHIF), an organization for which I have the honor of being the incoming president, also advocated for the measure because of the potential to better identify traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). The nonprofit organization submitted a letter to lawmakers in support of the law on behalf of the 3,000 TBI survivors and the more than 2,500 caregivers the group serves across Alabama. Additionally, the organization met with legislators across the state, helping them understand the importance of requiring coaches, even volunteer coaches, to recognize when a player might be injured and should be pulled from the game. These steps are especially important when head injuries are involved because they help prevent the injury from growing more severe.
Shifting focus to safety
An estimated 21 percent of TBIs experienced by children in the U.S. are due to sports and recreational activities. Increasing awareness about the occurrence and frequency of TBIs in youth sports and actions taken in other parts of the country, including a federal lawsuit against Pop Warner youth league football, echo a shifting outlook on safety in youth sports.
The focus of the law and the newly required training is on monitoring young athletes for injuries. By improving the monitoring skills of those on the practice fields and sidelines, more injuries will be identified and advocates hope this will lead to more prevention efforts, which is a step in the right direction, according to AHIF executive director, Scott Powell.
“It is likely that, at least initially, more injuries might be documented, but that isn’t necessarily an indication the program is ineffective,” said Powell. “In fact, properly identifying injuries is always a positive, especially if it helps prevent a second injury to the individual.”
A TBI is caused by a blow or other head trauma that changes how a brain normally functions. Someone who has experienced a TBI may appear to be well, but they may suffer short- or long-term changes that affect thinking, sensation, language, or even emotions, creating depression, aggression, and other forms of unusual behavior. A recent study revealed that after only one mild TBI learning and working memory impairment occurred, and when such an injury was repeated over time, it could hasten long-term brain deterioration. Without properly addressing TBIs, over time, athletes can develop Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which is caused by repeated head impacts over a number of years, or chronic TBIs. It is an incurable and fatal degenerative brain disease that can only be diagnosed after death, during an autopsy.
Additional steps can and should be taken to enhance the anticipated outcome of the new law, especially regarding TBIs.
The Alabama Department of Public Health is charged with implementing the law, and the AHIF has offered the organization’s field staff’s knowledge and expertise to assist with the process. The staff would be available to participate in coaching conferences statewide. They could also serve as a local contact and resource for individuals who may have sustained a TBI, providing them information about the appropriate course of action following their injury, as well as available resources within their local community. AHIF has also discussed plans to expand this initiative into sports such as gymnastics and cheerleading that aren’t immediately identified as causing TBIs.
American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine (Stop Sports Injuries)
Alabama Legislative Information System Online (ALISON)
Alabama Head Injury Foundation