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Kids and Playing Through Sports Injuries

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Last Sunday, as my kids, my husband and I were sitting down to dinner, we watched Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III collapse on the football field toward the end of their wild-card play-off loss against the Seattle Seahawks. Yes, we had the TV on during dinner (bad parents!) but hey, it’s the play-offs, and we had it on mute. We needed no sound to tell us the significance of what had just happened, however. Unless you’ve been living under the proverbial rock, you know that RG3 took the field with a not-yet-healed knee injury, re-injured it early in the game, and then continued to play until this final blow. For the last few days, there’s been nonstop talk in the sports world about why he insisted on playing and why his coach let him. This morning RG3 went under the knife and estimates on when he will return to the playing field vary from eight months to a year, with many experts pointing out that he may never again have the same speed and mobility that has brought him such success. 

As a sports fan, I get it. It’s the biggest game of the season and you’re the biggest star on the field. You want to show up, your coach wants you to show up, the team, the fans… and so on. But as a mom with three athletic kids who’ve all known their share of sports injuries, it now becomes my job to explain such a misguided decision to them. “It’s a unique opportunity to give your kids some perspective about professional sports versus the games they play, as well as making their own decisions,” notes University of Alabama clinical psychologist Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., who is also the official psychologist for Jox 94.5 sports radio in Birmingham. “They need to be introduced to the idea of good pain [okay to play through] and bad pain [you need to stop now]. Explain to them, ‘If your body is telling you ‘don’t do this,’ you have to pay attention to how you feel no matter what somebody else tells you.”

Plus: The Sport I’m Not Sure I’d Let My Son Play

It was a heated debate during dinner that night. “He looked fine at the beginning of the game but then you could tell it was starting to hurt and getting worse,” noted my 11-year-old son. “He should have come out then.”

So why didn’t he? This is when you want to make three points about professional athletes to your kids in terms they can understand, explains Klapow.

First, RG3 is a passionate, dedicated teammate and athlete. Football is his life. 

Second, football is his job. He is an employee who gets paid to play and win. It’s not just a game at this level.

Third, there were medical people on the sidelines—doctors and trainers—who said it was okay to go back onto the field. It wasn’t entirely his decision.

“There’s not always a right or wrong answer in sports because we don’t know what’s going to happen,” notes Klapow. “That’s why you need to constantly remind your kids: ‘It’s your body. A decision likes this is going to affect—and maybe hurt—you the most.”

Does any of this sound familiar? My husband reminded us all of Kerri Strug, the 1996 Olympic gymnast who performed a vault with an injured ankle and then had to be carried off by her coach. Strug, however, clinched the gold with that vault and became a national hero. She had reached the pinnacle of her career. RG3 is only beginning his.

Plus: Why I Lied to My Son About Football

My 15-year-old son agreed the Redskins coach was partly responsible: “He should have thought about RG3’s future. This could possibly change his career for the worse. It will be much harder for him to be great.”

My kids had a closer-to-home example to compare it to as well. Last winter a family friend and key player on our high school varsity basketball team injured his ankle during practice just before the county championships. He was devastated and so was everyone in our community. He was on the sidelines for the county championships (they still won), but about two weeks and some acupuncture sessions later, he was back on the court for the regionals and ultimately the state championship (they lost in the finals but it was a great run). You know what’s coming: He ended up reinjuring the ankle, missed out on the chance to play college football this past fall, and is still not fully recovered 10 months later. 

Like the situation with RG3, who is, after all, only 22 years old, these are instances when adults who know better are letting kids make decisions they aren’t equipped to handle. “RG3 is not alone in this situation. Many athletes have a strong competitive spirit that can translate into more destructive risk-taking than is good for them or the team,” notes Ali Iorio, M.Ed, author of Champion Parenting: Giving Your Child a Competitive Edge. “Remind your children that this attitude can be dangerous to the athlete’s immediate health and future well-being. RG3 is far more valuable to the team’s future than this one game.”

It’s a start. But we parents and coaches and fans have to be better than this. It’s painful for the athlete (and everyone else) to be told to stay on the sidelines, but there is not enough money (or college scholarships) in the world worth risking your future over. It’s going to hurt a lot more if RG3 ends up being a footnote in the history of football instead of the Hall of Famer everyone hopes for.

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