Jan 29, 2015
Wait Until 14 for Tackle Football?

Fourteen is the age at which most teenagers start attending high school. It is also the age at which athletes should start tackling in football, body checking in ice hockey, and heading a ball in soccer, according to Dr. Robert Cantu, chief of neurosurgery at Emerson Hospital and co-director of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.

In his new book, Concussions and Our Kids, Cantu says that limiting these activities in football, ice hockey, and soccer until its participants are 14 can help prevent youth-sports concussions. Before the age of 14, the neck is not strong enough to support the full weight of the head upon impact, creating what experts call “the bobble-head effect,” in which the head snaps back when hit, Cantu told CNN.com.

“Our youngsters have big heads on very weak necks and that combination sets up the brain for injury,” Cantu said.

He adds that starting at around 14, the skull of a child is roughly 90 percent the size of an adult’s, and the neck has become strong enough to support the head when struck. As the neck muscles develop further, the head will snap less dramatically. A protein called myelin, which acts as padding for nerve fibers in the brain, is also better developed by the time children reach 14, and this makes the brain less susceptible to injury.

The suggested age of 14 is not set in stone, however, and Cantu recommends keeping children from full-contact sports like football and ice hockey until the ages of 16 or 17 if necessary, he told Education Week.

“Some people at age 14 are physiologically 11 or 10. Other people are skeletally mature adults,” Cantu said. “So, the age is not perfect, no age would be. I chose 14 simply because that means high school and above. I use the age of 14, and don’t have any problems with 16 or 17 if the student-athletes aren’t skeletally mature. If they haven’t developed any pubic or axillary hair, I think you can make the case that you should hold them out a bit longer.”

Cantu is pro-sports and thinks more can be done to ensure they are played safely, drawing attention to the fact that youth sports frequently have inexperienced coaches and hardly any medical personnel on the sidelines. He doesn’t think limiting contact until after the age of 14 will hinder a child’s athletic skills either.

“I feel very strongly that if an individual starts playing a sport in high school, they’ll be up-to-speed with someone who’s been playing the sport since age 5 by college,” says Cantu. “It’ll make you better at those early years, but it won’t make you better by the time you get to college. Tom Brady is a good example. His dad held him out of tackle football until high school, and he doesn’t seem to be any worse for the wear, does he?”

For those that insist on keeping the tackling in football and checking in ice hockey, Cantu suggests making the practices non-contact instead of the games.

“You can eliminate 60-70 percent of head trauma by taking it out of practice,” he says. “And it’s not necessary to bang heads in practice. In the Ivy League, they’ve limited contact practices to twice a week. Especially at the youth level, don’t bang bodies. Hit pads, hit tackling dummies, don’t hit heads on heads.”

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