When Teaching Youth Athletes to “Play Through the Pain” Gets Dangerous

Even with the best possible safety training and prevention measures in place, accidents are bound to happen in youth sports. Sprained ankles, jammed fingers, scrapped knees and bruises—sooner or later someone is going to suffer a minor injury. While a good-sized bruise can be a source of pride for the Little Leaguer that slid into second (no matter how much it hurts!), it’s important that sports parents and coaches remember that there are some situations where it’s dangerous to push athletes to “play though the pain.” A scrapped knee isn’t all that serious, but a concussion can be and athletes need to know it’s okay to admit they are hurt.

The Centers for Disease Control estimate that one in ten athletes will suffer a sports-related concussion this year—a statistic that is likely much higher given the number of head injuries that continue to go unrecognized and under-reported.

A lot of youth athletes, especially as they get older and the sport gets more competitive, are afraid that if they admit they are hurting they’ll be benched or kicked off the team entirely. For many years sports coaches and parents had built an attitude that pain somehow equaled weakness and that admitting you were injured was like admitting defeat. Obviously times are changing but there is still enough remnants of that attitude for athletes to work through. One sports injury that has been getting a lot of attention in the past few years, from local youth sports all the way up to the pros is concussions. Even what looks to be a mild bump can be serious, especially if it goes undiagnosed and untreated and that athlete gets hit a second time. And while contact sports like football and hockey are probably the most likely sport to cause When Teaching Youth Athletes to “Play Through the Pain” Gets Dangerousconcussions in youth athletes, concussions can happen in ANY sport.

Even if you know nothing about sports injuries, it’s easy enough to know you need to pull a kid off the field and get them medical attention when they are unconscious, but did you know that most concussions occur WITHOUT loss of consciousness? Here are a few signs an athlete suffering from a concussion might show even if they are still conscious:

  • Appears dazed or stunned
  • Moves clumsily
  • Answers questions slowly
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Balance problems or dizziness
  • Double or blurry vision
  • Sensitivity to light  and noise

Some youth athletes might feel “out of sorts” after getting hit in the head but are afraid to admit it to their coach or parent. That’s why it is so important that coaches and parents pull any kid off the field they suspect might have a concussion and ensure they are checked out and cleared by a medical professional before letting them get back into the game. Coaches, however knowledgeable they may be about concussions, don’t have X-ray vision and can’t actually see what is going on with an athlete’s brain.  While playing through the pain of a jammed finger might be possible (albeit uncomfortable), playing through the pain of a concussion can lead to more serious problems like permanent brain injury. This is even more likely if the athlete ISN’T taken out of the game and suffers another blow to the head, known as “second impact symptom.”

While playing through the pain can be a good lesson for youth athletes to learn (perseverance and determination are almost always good things!), it’s also important that we teach athletes to respect their body and its limitations and know when to stop.