Hitting the right note on children’s sport

If you tuned into the Six Nations last weekend, you would have done so to watch talented athletes ply their trade. But you might also be watching to witness the incredible physicality of the sport – put more succinctly as giants colliding into each other.

Rugby, like many others, is a contact activity and players at the highest level have conditioned themselves for years to withstand the rigours of their sport. Therefore, it makes sense that school is the best time to embark on this course where the skills and body can be gradually conditioned in a safe and supervised way. No it isn’t, is the message from more than 70 doctors and academics, who earlier this week wrote to ministers calling for contact rugby – i.e. tackling – to be banned in schools.

Their argument is that children and young people are unnecessarily exposed to the consequences of high-impact collisions, which include concussions. Their solution is that non-contact forms of rugby would reduce the risk of serious injury.

The intervention is certainly well intentioned. But it raises a number of questions – not just about rugby, but about sport and young people, at a time when the Government is attempting to increase participation in physical activity at a young age.

Where do you draw the line?

The argument is that contact in rugby is an inherent part of the sport, thereby exposing children to risk. While true, it’s possible to argue that physical risk is not only present but prevalent in many other sport, not to mention life in general.

Gymnastics presents the risk of serious injury if various tumbles go wrong. Football includes tackling. Cricketers stand at one end of a wicket while a bowler hurls a very solid object at them. Hockey runs the risk of being hit by a stick. The list goes on. If tackling in rugby is banned, at what point do you then draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable? And, on the subject of rugby, if tackling bans were limited to schools, would children not just face the same risks when playing for local rugby clubs up and down the country?

Kids will be kids

Olympic diver Tom Daley has been quoted in the past on the force of the collisions he undergoes daily, slamming into a body of water from up to 10 meters in height. Yet we don’t prohibit anyone, except the very young, from throwing themselves off diving boards. Collisions and physical risks are an ever-present. Many siblings will roughhouse, after all. So, while the point about the effect on children is well made, at what point does protection become over-protective?

Could participation in sport be affected?

Many children are inspired to take up hobbies and sports. They’re inspired by role-models, of which professional sportspeople are a major category. Would young people take up sport if they can’t copy what their heroes do in a controlled and safe environment?

Is there a greater long-term risk?

In top class sport, there is a phrase of ‘contact fit’. What that means is that an individual’s body only becomes conditioned for participation in their chosen sport by actually taking part. While the effort to exposing young children to the risks associated with contact rugby is laudable, is there not a greater risk of injury if exposed to contact at a later age, when collisions will be that much more forceful?

Is there a better way?

While accepting the potential risk of contact sport, the question is whether protecting young people from that risk is the best way forward. An alternative might be to increase the knowledge of the supervising adults – making sure they understand and are watching for the risks, and are capable of acting to manage or prevent possible injury.

When the Government is trying to get more young people involved in sport and physical activity, this debate could be a game changer. Its effect won’t be immediate. But expect this debate to run, and possibly extend to different sports.