Concussions and Female Athletes Documentary Available Online

Concussions and their devastating consequences affect athletes in all sports and at all levels. However, while sport-related concussions have ignited a national conversation and public debate about this serious brain injury, the majority of attention has focused on male athletes. Critical issues surrounding the impact of concussion on female athletes have been largely ignored. Through the personal stories and experiences of coaches, athletes and their families, as well as in-depth interviews with nationally recognized scholars and medical experts, this documentary examines the causes underlying concussion and offers practical solutions to help prevent and treat sports-related concussion injuries in female athletes.

In collaboration with the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport, Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) has produced a ground-breaking, one-hour documentary on the untold story of female athletes and concussion.

You can watch the full length documentary for free by clicking this web link.

2 Steps Backwards for Female Athletes

2 Steps to Nowhere are Better Than 2 Steps Back

Today I came across two articles in the New York Times related to female athletes and women’s sport. Neither contains good news and in fact both articles highlight that despite gains made in the post Title IX era, female sport participation is still constantly under attack.

Sport sociologists term the participation of females in sport and the conflicts that arise over who will play and under what conditions as “contested terrain.” Contested terrain means both oppression and resistance exist simultaneously and that existing power dynamics and social inequalities are both reinforced and challenged in and through sport.

Katie Thomas wrote a piece titled  College Teams, Relying on Deception, Undermine Gender Equity about how many college athletic teams are padding the number of female athletes on their rosters in order to make it appear the school is in compliance with Title IX.

update 4/29/11: Read the Women’s Sports Foundation response to these deceptive Title IX practices here. In the response Kathryn Olson, CEO of the WSF, said, “If an athletic department is willing to manipulate its sports programs by creating an artificial veneer of fairness among its male and female students with these laws on the books, one must wonder what would happen without Title IX.”

Alice Dreger wrote a piece titled Redefining the Sexes in Unequal Terms about how a new rule pertaining to the level of functional testosterone in female athletes is a sexist form of biochemical policing that male athletes do not endure.

Girls Competing Against Boys: Part II

I’ve been thinking more about 12 year-old MN female Ingrid Neel who will play on the High School boy’s tennis team this spring. I can see both sides of this issue. I’ve gotten some interesting emails offline and my students this morning had some thoughts as well. Here is a rough summary of those opinions and thoughts:

Why it might be good idea to let her play: the team will mirror the gender composition of the workplace in which she will largely compete against males, helps her develop life skills and “toughness” in competition, her tennis skills will improve, increased recognition which may help with recruiting, helps the boys learn to appreciate athletic talent of girls, has the potential to change outdated gender stereotypes of female athletes as “lesser”, separation of boys and girls in sport is arbitrary anyway so why not let them play together?, challenges the gender binary that all males are better than all female athletes and provides proof that many females CAN outperform or perform with males.

Why it might be a bad idea to let her play: the boys might not want her on team and it will destroy team cohesion, it might reinforce outdated gender stereotypes and ways of thinking about female athletes (the best athletes are male), her experiences will depend greatly on how the coach and the boys’ parents handle her presence on the team, Is it appropriate or should a 12 year old girl be around 17 year old males?; it takes her away from her female peers during a critical developmental window, Is it fair or healthy to ask a teen age boy to play (and possibly lose!) a younger girl…isn’t that emotional abuse?, it might open the floodgate of boys wanting to play on the girls’ team.

There are many facets of this issue to consider, which have been discussed and debated previously. To help us all think through the complexities and know the facts, I would guide the reader to Issues Related to Girls and Boys Competing With and Against Each Other in Sports and Physical Activity Settings: A Women’s Sports Foundation Position. The WSF piece is a nice summary and includes the legality of co-ed sport participation and opportunities to play under Title IX.

Related to the Ingrid Neel case, a colleague (thanks LW!) sent me a story about an Iowa wrestler who defaulted his state tournament match, rather than face a female wrestler (Cassy Herkelman).

One thought I want to share is that I think that most boys can greatly benefit from having to compete against girls. It has the potential (and I say that cautiously) to be a great opportunity for both competitors. Isn’t that the true meaning of competition…to strive together and bring out the best in each other? (NOTE: for a good book on this topic, read True Competition by David Shields & Brenda Light Bredemeier, former colleagues of mine at Notre Dame) However, the opportunity will be lost if the adults in the lives of both competitors mess it up. By that I mean if the coach or parents tease or allow teasing of the boy if he loses, which reinforces that boys should naturally be better than girls. It also tells the boy he isn’t “a real man” if he can’t beat a GIRL and therefore should be ashamed. Comments, teasing, hazing, and bullying directed towards the female competitor should also not be allowed or tolerated.

Some colleagues and I (Fink, LaVoi & Newhall, 2015)  did a study of male practice players of NCAA D-I women’s basketball teams. These researchers found the men in their study respected and appreciated the female athletes, and perspectives about female athletes and women in general did change. Overall the men described it as a very positive and transformative experience, therefore providing evidence that co-ed  competition can work and lead to positive development and growth.

If it can be done at one one the highest levels of competition, surely co-ed competition can be successfully achieved at the youth and interscholastic level. Let the kids play and hopefully if the adults get it right, it will be a positive and teachable moment for all involved.

I’d love to hear your additional thoughts.

Developing Physically Active Girls: A Pecha Kucha

I’ve put together a Pecha Kucha video presentation on “Developing Physically Active Girls”.

If you are not familiar with Pecha Kucha, it is a 20 slides x 20 seconds (6:40 mn) presentation format in which the slides advance automatically while you talk. To learn more about Pecha Kucha, the Japanese term for the sound of conversation (“chit chat”)  click here.

The full report and executive summary of Developing Physically Active Girls: An Evidence-based Multidisciplinary Approach, which I co-authored, can be downloaded for free here. The video contains key points from this report.

Mini vs. Mature Pros: Physical Activity Across the Lifespan

Ironically two New York Times articles showed up in my inbox today from different colleagues (thanks ED & ALN) about physical activity on different ends of the age spectrum. I find this ying-yang juxtaposition interesting.

pic by Ann Johansson for The New York Times

One is an article by sports journalist and author Mark Hyman titled “Sports Training Has Begun for Babies and Toddlers”. Hyman knows this topic well as he’s written a book called Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession With Youth Sports and How it Harms our Kids, which I think is one of the best books about youth sport. I have many concerns about the products and programs Hyman details.

First, the target market is not the little ones, but their parents who will do anything to help their child get ahead, “keep up with the Joneses” and do right by their children.  I’d even go a step further and argue the target market is White, middle- to upper-class parents who are highly educated. Some call this demographic of parents “helicopter” parents. Someone told me recently that the youngest members of our society are now being called the Super Millennials and they will be more savvy, entitled, pampered and demanding than Millennials (also known as Gen Y, born between 1981-2000). One of the best books I’ve read about the Millennials is Bruce Tulgan’s “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage Generation Y.” These sports training programs (Gymtrixx, Baby Goes Pro, athleticbaby, The Little Gym) for Super Millennials and their parents are a perfect example how sports can go wrong and why and how youth sports is becoming increasingly professionalized. I mean the little guys in Hyman’s story have on uniforms!

Kotelko picture by Patrik Giardino for The New York Times

The second article is by Bruce Grierson titled “The Incredible Flying Nonagenarian” about Olga Kotelko. Kotelko is a 91 year old Masters Track & Field athlete who started competing at age 77 and in that time holds 23 world records and has won over 600 gold medals. She is considered one of the world’s greatest athletes. WOW! In the NYT piece if you scroll down a bit, there is a video of her talking about competing and some footage of her in action. Amazing! Tangentially, last spring The Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport invited Mariah Burton Nelson to give a Distinguished Lecture on Are Women Aging Successfully? New Thinking and Research about Gender and Physical Activity. You can watch the full length video here.

The reason why I put these two articles together is important. As I stated earlier, youth sport is increasingly professionalized and children are being “trained” at higher levels like “mini pros” at younger and younger ages. While a longitudinal study on the effects of early training, sport specialization, and  year round training without rest periods on children and youth has yet to be done, based on data that does exist in pediatric sports medicine, child development, sports psychology and sports sociology I feel I can safely claim that “sports training” for babies is NOT a good idea.

Here are a few reasons why–early sports training can lead to a host of negative and detrimental psychosocial and physical outcomes like burnout, anxiety and eating disorders due to pressure to perform, lack of lifelong enjoyment of physical activity, chronic and overuse injuries, and drop out of sport altogether. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an advocate of kids being active and encouraging free play with children that develops motor and life skills and love of physical activity, but I think there is a fine line between this approach and some of the companies/products Hyman writes about.

Grieger in his piece about Kotelko nails the important link when he writes, “While most younger masters athletes were jocks in college if not before, many competitors in the higher brackets — say, older than age 70 — have come to the game late. They weren’t athletes earlier in life because of the demands of career and their own growing families. Only after their duties cleared could they tend that other fire.”

Olga Kotelko wasn’t enrolled in “baby sports training” but despite a lack of exposure to this ‘opportunity’, she is a professional athlete. More importantly I’d argue, is that she is an exemplary cautionary tale for eager parents bent on early sport specialization. In the big picture of why parents want their children to participate in sport, what is more important: a) nurturing a lifelong ability and love to participate in physical activity, or b) creating a mini pro that might burn out or not be able to compete in college (let alone later in life) due to over use injuries?

Summary on Ice Hockey Concussion Summit: What You Need to Know!

Last week I attended the first-ever Ice Hockey Summit: Action on Concussion. The program was impressive and invited speakers in included NHL referee and players, coaches, neurologists, neurosurgeons, neuropsychologists, brain physiologists, sport scientists, coach educators, helmet engineers and manufacturers, biomechanists, researchers, clinical psychologists, athletic trainers, sports medicine and family practice doctors, and representatives from the International Ice Hockey Federation, USA Hockey and Hockey Canada.

The New York Times wrote two pieces on the summit which are informative (click here and here).

Here are a few of the important messages that everyone should know about concussions.

  • A concussion is a traumatic brain injury and should be treated and taken seriously. The CDC has a host of wonderful and free materials about concussions that can be accessed here, including specific information about sports concussions.
  • Mouth guards do NOT protect athletes from concussions. Helmets protect from linear focal point hits, but don’t protect from concussions (which primarily are sustained from rotational and linear forces) as well as we think they do.
  • All sport stakeholders should be educated about the signs and symptoms associated with concussions. Concussions in children and youth is a serious issue because the brain is still developing and therefore more vulnerable to lasting concussive side effects (15% of children do not fully recover from concussions).
  • If an athlete is suspected of having a concussion, he/she should NOT Return To Play (RTP) in that game or that day. Period. “When in Doubt, Sit Them Out!
  • The decision for Return To Play  should only be given by a trained medical professional, not by coaches, parents or placed in the hands of the athlete. RTP is a medical decision. Both physical and cognitive rest are needed following a concussion. Even when an athlete is asymptomatic, the brain is still recovering. Returning to play too early places the athlete at greater risk for another concussion, potentially long lasting side effects, and increases the likelihood of a full recovery.
  • A concussed brain is a metabolic crisis which creates a “chemical soup” that bathes the brain. Metabolic recovery of the brain Lags behind 30-45 days symptomatic resolution. What this means is that even when an athlete shows no signs of concussion and is physically recovered, the brain is still healing.
  • Multiple brain injuries, like repetitive concussions, places the individual at greater risk for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)–an emerging disorder that was frightening to hear about. For more about CTE and the work of Dr. Ann McKee and colleagues at Boston University School of Medicine click here,
  • A cultural and behavioral shift needs to occur in hockey to help reduce the incidence of concussions and protect athletes. The belief  that brutal hits and fights are entertaining, especially in professional hockey, creates an environment in which illegal should-to- head hits are tolerated, not penalized, and fights are allowed to continue (18% of concussions happen during fights). This belief in turn trickles down to the youth level, where such behaviors are learned, valued, and taught. Evidence that behavior around illegal and dangerous behaviors can be changed as the Hockey Education Program in Minnesota has shown with the implementation of the Fair Play Point system.

The First-ever Ice Hockey Summit: Action on Concussion

October 19-20 The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN will be hosting the first-ever Ice Hockey Summit: Action on Concussion.

The prevalence and consequences of concussion at all levels of ice hockey are concerning. Reduction of concussion risk, as well as improved concussion diagnosis and management require a collaborative effort from medicine, psychology, sport science, coaching, engineering, officiating, manufacturing, and community partners. This quality scientific program focuses on education and generates an evidence-based action plan designed to make a difference. For the rationale on why this summit is important and needed click here.

For more information, to register, or to view the brochure which contains the full line-up of top experts on concussions from multiple disciplines, or visit the website.

This conference comes none to soon as the growing concern over concussions in the NFL and college football mount. A recent story about a former University of Pennsylvania football player, highlights the need for this conference and other educational efforts. In the story it was reported that, “A study of the brain tissue of Owen Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania football captain who committed suicide in April, reportedly revealed the beginning stages of a degenerative disease that is believed to be caused by repeated head trauma.

To read a previous blog post on the NFL and concussions which contains many excellent links to data-based information, click here.

More Thoughts on Equal Playing Time in Youth Sports

Thank you for everyone who weighed in and took the time to provide insight and opinions on equal playing time in youth sports for a previous blog. It is clear playing time is a pressing issue across all sectors of youth sport and parents, coaches, and administrators alike are struggling to make informed decisions.

Existing and emerging evidence from child development, pediatric sports medicine, sport psychology, sport sociology, and moral development seems to point to the idea that equal playing time is imperative for children up to age 12 (and some would argue age 14).

From my observations and interactions with youth sport stakeholders the debate over playing time starts with differing views on the purpose of youth sport and the tension between winning/being competitive and athlete development/fun/enjoyment. I reject the notion that winning, athlete development and fun/enjoyment can’t simultaneously be achieved. This dichotomous thinking is part of the problem in organized youth sport.

Adults who run, organize, and coach youth sport consider many factors when making decisions about playing time and arguably factors change in weight as the child gets older. The graphic in Figure 1:  Playing Time Considerations illustrate this complexity.

I’ve outlined EFFORT in red as this is one of the few factors that a child can control. Giving full effort in practice and games regardless of the situation is a very important life lesson that can be taught and learned through participation in sport.

A father in a recent sport parent workshop asked me about the danger of “teaching children to be  mediocre” by awarding equal playing time. His point was that a child who didn’t work hard or give full effort would automatically be awarded the same playing time as a child who was working hard, and that if playing time weren’t used as “the carrot” (i.e., you work hard, you get to play) that kids wouldn’t work hard. It was a good question.

To answer his question used evidence and borrowed some wisdom from my colleague Clark Power, Ph.D., a scholar in moral development and Director of the Play Like a Champion Educational Series at the University of Notre Dame. Power argues playing time is not a reward for displaying virtue, it is a means for developing virtue. I also pointed out the carrot approach is a problematic way of using playing time. First, children need to be taught that working hard is an inherent part of sports, skill development, and life. Children should want to work hard because it is inherently enjoyable, as hard work can lead to improvement, satisfaction, sense of self worth, accomplishment, and many more positive outcomes. These intrinsic motives for giving full effort will lead to a much greater likelihood of long term participation than using playing time as an extrinsic reward that can be taken away or awarded by adults.

Second, up until age 10-11, developmentally children cannot discern between effort and ability. They equate effort with being good at something. Therefore, under an unequal playing time system a child who gives full effort but does not get to play, is likely to think he is not good at that sport. Based on evidence in sport psychology, perception of competence is one of the biggest predictors of enjoyment and sustained participation. The take home message here:  a child who believes he is incompetent because he is sitting on the bench even thought he believes he’s given effort in practices, will be much more likely to drop out. If he drops out before he can understand cognitively that effort and ability are not always the same, and that effort is a virtue, then he will not reap the developmental and health benefits which can be accrued through sport participation.

A great deal more evidence than what I’ve presented here exists in support of an “equal playing time through age 12” youth sport policy, but this is an evidence-based food for thought starting point for youth sport stakeholders to consider. For more information on youth sports visit the Minnesota Youth Sport Research Consortium.

Sustainable Physical Activity & Golfing Mothers

I’ll be gone for a few days to London for a think tank workshop on examining and verifying a systems model approach of sustainable physical activity. I will have more to report upon returning. The most interesting part is the company that is sponsoring the think tank. I’m not sure I can reveal the company, so before I get myself in trouble, I’ll keep you in suspense.

In the meantime, take a look at the New York Times series on the LPGA and motherhood here and here (thanks ES!). Anyone want to comment?

Fault Lines: Shaking Up Change

Currently I’m staying with a friend/colleague and her family in  Palmerston North, New Zealand. I’ve been learning about the history of NZ, the local culture, the indigenous Maori people, trying local NZ fruit and wine, and seeing a bit of the countryside. I’ve very much enjoyed my time here. The most interesting bit I’ve learned is that NZ sits a top a major fault line where the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates converge (see on it to enlarge).

Upon hearing about the “occasional” NZ earthquake and learning more about the geographic history of NZ at Te Papa Museum of New Zealand, I’ve been thinking about fault lines–a topic I’ve always found fascinating.

Figuratively, how often are we on top of fault lines and remain completely unaware until the ground beneath us cracks and disaster follows?   We all have fault lines we are sitting upon--professional, relational, economic, political, environmental, familial, health, and spiritual fractures, for example. Sometimes we are caught completely unaware, other faults we may sense of feel tremors of larger, life-altering damaging quakes ahead, and sometimes we choose to ignore the fractures and hope the earth doesn’t open up beneath us because it is easier to maintain the status quo than to confront the inevitable, sometimes painful truth.

The earth’s tectonic plates are constantly shifting, as are the dimensions of our lives. How do we stay apprised of shifting plates, remain true to ourselves, try to make a difference in the world, and not become paranoid or despondent that certain doom and destruction may prevail  as nature takes her course? How much agency do we have and how much should fatalism be embraced? I realize this blog is a departure from a sport-oriented theme, but is related to my post-IWG 5th World Congress on Women in Sport thinking on how to create change in the number of females in positions of power in sport. In this sense I think females have to take control, be active and proactive agents in creating fault lines that challenge and change the status quo, rather than wait for the very slow moving plates of existing power regimes to collide and change with time…which may never happen in our life time! We all should all think about how we can affect positive change in our own way, real change that improves the health and well being of people, not just change that improves company profit margins.

What are you doing?