With the blood-curdling sound of bones snapping, ligaments tearing and tendons popping, the quarterback dropped to the ground in excruciating pain.
“When I drove my helmet into the center of his chest, my neck absorbed the majority of the impact, fracturing two vertebrae at the base of my neck about parallel to my shoulders,” said Mike Smith the second-string quarterback and special teams player for Hufford Junior High School in Joliet Illinois, describing the moment when he broke his neck, back, and collarbone.
“I initially did not realize my neck was broken and played the next day in our homecoming game,” Smith said. Unfortunately, it was too late, not only for that season, but his football career was over also. Many weeks of painful rehabilitation were ahead of him.
“I wore a neck brace for six weeks and avoided all contact sports for the rest of that school year… I was out for the rest of that season; my injury happened about halfway through the football season. I did not play football after that. My doctors advised against it,” said Smith. That’s the reality of playing sports; injuries happen. It is not intentional, but it happens at the most inopportune times.
From a young age, players are taught that there is a difference between being injured and being hurt. When players complain about being hurt and not wanting to participate in practice, their coaches will undoubtedly ask them if they are hurt or if they are injured. It’s expected that a player will hurt; it’s expected that a player will be sore. You’re expected to be banged up; you’re playing sports.
If you are injured, coaches will tell you that it is imperative that you seek professional medical help as soon as possible. They will also inform you that you will not be allowed to participate with the team until they receive a doctor’s note saying you are cleared for physical activity. After being presented with this lecture from coaches, players will often admit that they are hurt, not injured and proceed with practice for fear of not being able to compete.
Being an athlete demands a lot from the body. Off-seasons are just as important as regular seasons. Practices are just as important as games. Time spent in the weight room, conditioning during the off-season and focus during practice will translate to results on the field. To be an athlete that can compete at the highest level you have to dedicate your life to the game.
According to Stanford’s Children’s Health, “Thirty million children and teens participate in some form of organized sports, and more than 3.5 million injuries each year, which cause some loss of time of participation, are experienced by the participants.”
Over nine percent of the population participate in sports in the United States as a child and 12 percent of those who do participate become injured with loss of playing time. These numbers are troublesome considering the advancements that have been made in the interest of player safety, especially in youth sports.
Many sports are violent by nature, and even proper equipment cannot prevent improper technique in sports where physical contact between players is necessary. Some injuries are inevitable regardless of the equipment and safety regulations provided. However, learning the proper procedure for contact from a young age can prevent injuries.
StopSportsInjuries.org says, “Children ages 5 to 14 account for nearly 40 percent of all sports-related injuries treated in hospitals. On average the rate and severity of injury increases with a child’s age.”
With the advancements in sports safety, the number of injuries to children should, in theory, be decreasing with age not increasing. The science behind sports medicine has become increasingly accepted, but that does not deter from the fact that sports injuries are unavoidable.
“The injury’s severity usually increases based on skill and age,” said Director of Sports Medicine for the Legends Football League, Jeremy Fisher. When athletes begin to compete at higher levels, the likelihood that they will suffer a significant injury also increases.
“During this past season,” Fisher recounted, “concussions were my number two injury to ACL tears; my third most common injury was ankle sprains… since athletes are becoming bigger, faster, stronger, you do see other injuries you may not have seen previously based on the amount of force athletes can generate.”
As is the case with any injury, the timelines for rehabilitation vary depending on the injury.
According to Fisher, “ACL’s with surgery take six to nine months to heal, concussions vary from a few days to indefinitely and ankle sprains can vary from no time missed to three months. The worst ankle sprain I had seen … the athlete was out for 18 months.”
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, the top five most injury-prone sports are: basketball, with more than 170,000 injuries; baseball and softball, with nearly 110,000 injuries; bicycling, with more than 200,000 injuries; football, with almost 215,000 injuries; and ice hockey with more than 20,000 injuries. These injuries are all related to children ages 5-14 who were treated in hospital emergency rooms for their injuries.
The rehabilitation process for almost all sports injuries is the same.
Fisher says, “For all rehabilitation, you go through a specific pattern no matter the injury. Decrease pain, increase the range of motion, increase strength, increase stability, return to sport specific exercises … finally, return to the sport.” The length of the process may vary depending on the severity of the injury, but the principles behind rehabilitation stay the same.
No matter what age you’re competing in when participating in sports, injuries are inevitable; the best thing that you can do is receive the proper training before competing. If and when you receive an injury, take the appropriate time to recover, follow the trainer’s recommendations and don’t shorten the recovery time for the sake of getting back to competition. Recalling the high school career-ending injury of Smith in a final comment to our conversation, Smith reflected with humor that.
“I think the wisest and safest course of action is playing some highly intense and competitive games of chess, a sport designed to improve, not harm the brain.”