As a former coach and athletic director in a private school, I have been especially interested in the brewing controversy about age-related injuries, particularly in tackle football. There is increasing evidence to suggest that a young, physically immature athlete is more susceptible to injury, as noted in the recent Press Herald editorial on youth football and collisions.

Much of the outcry is perhaps well-founded, but we should be very careful about establishing knee-jerk criteria that determine an actual age when a youth is ready for tackle football – or any sport, for that matter.

Twelve is the age suggested in the Press Herald editorial and elsewhere among the media. But those of us who have coached or administered youth sports know that the age of 12 is when one foot is facing toward adulthood while the other can be still departing childhood. There are so many physical differences at this age, as adolescence runs rampant in some but takes its time in others.

If you have watched Little League during its World Series exposure, the physical discrepancies among many of the players are obvious. And this is an organization that prides itself, and rightfully so, on strict adherence to age requirements. But birth certificates and genetics are not always compatible. Imagine if the similar age criteria were established in youth tackle football that Little League baseball has.

As an athletic director, I was always wary even of the young freshman whose outstanding ability indicates he is skilled enough to play at the varsity level. How many freshmen are playing varsity sports all over our state, with athletes ranging in age from perhaps 14 to 18 on the same field? I see this discrepancy in age as very risky when adolescents of varying physiques are competing in the same arena, especially if it is in a contact sport.

Certainly the vast improvement in equipment and playing surfaces, along with a better understanding of coaching techniques and training methods, has helped to keep traumatic injury at a minimum. However, I would encourage careful consideration in any impending attempt at determining a specific age as one of the criteria for playing a sport. Common sense, experience and good judgment should rule any decision.

filed under: