Heads Up

Thirteen-year-old Zack Lystedt lay on the football field just before halftime, clutching both sides of his helmet; his head had struck the ground while tackling an opponent.

He went to the sidelines for the final three plays of the half, but he was back on the field for the start of the third quarter. His life was in jeopardy. At the end of the game, he collapsed on the field and was airlifted to a local hospital.

Zack underwent emergency surgery to remove the left and right side of his skull to relieve the pressure from his injured and swelling brain. He endured seven days on a ventilator, three months in a coma, four weeks in a nursing home, two months in a children’s hospital and 20 months on a feeding tube.

And that’s not all.

Because he returned to the game prematurely, it was nine long months before he was able to speak his first word, more than a year before he could move an arm or leg, and nearly three years before he could stand--with assistance.

“Shaking It Off” No Longer Applies

When it comes to youth sports, particularly football, coaches want kids to be tough and to ignore the aches and pains that accompany the game.

Anyone who has played football or any other sport has heard a coach utter “shake it off” when a player is hurt. Yet, those words can put children who have suffered a head injury in serious trouble. A concussion that occurs before the brain recovers from the first injury can slow recovery as well as increase the likelihood of long-term problems. It can also result in brain swelling, permanent brain damage and even death.

In May 2009, the state of Washington passed a bill called the Lystedt Law, which requires any youth showing signs of a concussion to be examined and cleared by a licensed healthcare provider before he or she is allowed to return to play. Similar bills are in the works in a number of other states.

Looking After Young Athletes

What steps are you taking in your programs to ensure a youngster does not suffer the horrible trauma that Zack went through?

For starters, make sure that every coach is aware of the signs and symptoms of a concussion, and will remove a child exhibiting such signs from practices and games; he or she must be evaluated by a professional before being allowed to return.

The National Youth Sports Coaches Association’s coach-training program includes information on the subject, including valuable insights from Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz, director of the Sports Medicine Research Laboratory at the University of North Carolina. He explains that an athlete does not have to lose consciousness to suffer a concussion. Do coaches in your program know that?

Besides working with coaches, it’s also vital that young athletes who may be experiencing any symptoms of a concussion or suspect that a teammate may be inform coaches or parents.

Athletes--who hate coming out of games and missing out on the action--must be taught that it’s better to miss a few plays or one game rather than a whole season.

Zack’s youth-sports career was cut short. He missed out on years of games, practices and special memories because no one knew he shouldn’t have been back on the field so soon that day.

Let’s learn from this and do everything we can to make sure that no youngster suffers the same fate.

Getting in a few more plays simply isn’t worth it.

Fred Engh is founder and CEO of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla., which has been advocating positive and safe sports for children since 1981. He is also the author of Why Johnny Hates Sports, which is available on Amazon.com. He can be reached via e-mail at fengh@nays.org