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February 3, 2021

Should Child Athletes Play Through the Pain?

Every day, in gyms and fields across America young athletes are required to  accept some level of pain, risk and discomfort to advance in their sport. But what  is the acceptable level of pain or risk? When does pain turn into injury that  requires sport associations and adults to intervene on behalf of children? 

On Season I of the Legally Brief Podcast, I interviewed Rob Stolker, former  coach, entrepreneur, and author of It’s a No Brainer. During that interview, Rob  recounted an early memory of his daughters’ first lacrosse practice. Rob observed both boys and girls’ lacrosse practices taking place. However, unlike  their male counterparts, the girl players had no helmets to protect their heads  from the sticks or hard fast-flying balls used in the sport. Rob studied the game and learned that the health of female lacrosse players was not being adequately  protected. 

As reported in Stolker’s book, women’s lacrosse is second only to football in  player concussion rates. Every year, female lacrosse players suffer concussions  and long-lasting brain injuries. U.S. lacrosse, governs and oversees high school  and college lacrosse. This organization has repeatedly failed to mandate helmets  for female players. Its resistance is the misguided belief that mandating helmets 

in girls’ lacrosse will lead to a more aggressive game. This belief ignores the  alarming statistics that girls are sustaining permanent head injuries. 

Kayla Zuniga’s Story 

I started lacrosse when I was in 7th grade and played for a total of eight  years. I competed on a traveling team and was even recruited to play for a college  in Virginia. I was a midfielder, running around toward the goal to shoot when two  defenders ran toward me, slashing their sticks down in an attempt to knock the  ball from my stick, but instead both sticks came crashing down on my  head….About two minutes later, I was running down the field with the ball when I  tripped and landed on my head and then rolled into two summersaults, Again, I  thought nothing of it, so I stood up and kept going. It wasn’t until after the game  my family noticed something was wrong…. My mother took me to the emergency  room, and sure enough, they confirmed I had gotten a concussion…they diagnosed  me with a double concussion due to the double impact. My brain was already  injured from the first hit and then when I hit the ground my brain hit my skull  again, causing another injury.  

One of the hardest parts was school. I was falling behind because of the  injury. I pushed myself at first and tried to continue at school, but about a month  passed, and I wasn’t getting any better, so the school decided to put me in home  hospital. The concussion I experienced was brutal and it changed the way my  brain is able to process information and recall events, which makes school and  learning difficult.” 

Physical Injures are not the only obstacles young athletes must overcome in  the pursuit of athletic success, children also encounter emotional harm.

Ciara McCormack’s Story  

In 2019 Former Canadian Professional Soccer Player, Ciara McCormack  published accounts of abuse she and other teammates endured under coach  Bob Birarda. The following is excerpt from that post. Read the full blog here. 

“…Over time, with this immense amount of power, he started to bully and manipulate people  and created a shitty, fearful environment. For those of us on the fringe of the national team, we  were also on the Whitecaps, and so we were shuffled back and forth and at Coach Billy’s mercy. 

He reminded us often, that he was the reason we were training with the national team, with the  obvious underlying insinuation that he gave us the opportunity and he could also take it away. 

In the Spring of 2007, there were more things happening that heightened the stress and anxiety,  especially for those of us on the fringe of the National Team program. 

I witnessed him bully a friend into hysterical sobbing as he berated her for asking to not sleep in  a room the size of a closet as her housing for the summer, and for daring to ask to go to national  team practice instead of showing the incoming star Whitecaps player around the neighborhood  like he had requested. 

After witnessing their exchange over the phone as she drove me to practice, later that night  Coach Billy sent her an email insinuating there would be playing consequences if she continued  to stand up to him.” 

Sports are brilliant. The friendships, movement and competition can serve  as the building blocks for a productive adult life. The stories of Kayla and Ciara  are a reminder that abusive coaches and indifferent governing bodies can damage  that experience. However, because these women shared their story, parents  have a better understanding of what can go wrong, and the improvements  needed in competitive youth sports. 

Listen to the Legally Brief Presents Child Athlete Abuse Podcast to learn  more about ways you can protect your child from physical, sexual emotional  abuse in sports. 

Join others who are confronting abuse and creating action plans with the  help of Judie Saunders. Connect with Judie here.

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