After Covid, how much rugby should children play?

When this Covid pandemic finishes, you might be thinking about which sports will be best for your child. Well, rugby is clearly enjoyable for many people, and is helpful for fitness and socializing (though of course most other children’s sport have similar benefits). Rugby, apparently, has also been “building character since 1823“, according to the global governing body.

But if you are thinking about encouraging your child to play rugby, do consider this new research which shows an alarming rate of concussion (brain trauma / brain injury) in school students who play rugby. In a study of 416 New Zealand high school rugby players, the findings indicated that 69% of players had sustained a suspected concussionduring their playing of the sport at school. Did you read that properly? 69%? Really? Does that seem high?

You may be shocked at these stats. And if you’re a staunch rugby defender, you may be very skeptical about this research. Let’s go through some potential issues:

You might think it was done by biased researchers with an anti-rugby, anti-risk agenda. But, actually, of the 8 researchers involved, 4 work for New Zealand Rugby, including the “lead” researcher. The other 4 researchers work for various universities.

You might think the children are exaggerating when reporting their brain injuries. But actually, we can infer the number of concussions could be even higher than the reported figure, for two reasons. First, the researchers state: “NZ Rugby has a mandated 21 or 23-day stand-down period if a player has been removed for a suspected concussion depending on their age. While this policy prevents players with a suspected concussion from returning which is an important safety consideration, it may also have the detrimental side effect of increasing nondisclosure in players.”
Second, the researchers state “the responses of the current sample may not include the characteristics of players who have withdrawn from rugby participation due to concussions or the risk of possible concussions.” So for anyone who thinks the 69% is overstating the issue, it might reasonably be that 69% is an understatement.

You might think the “suspected” concussions reported by the participants weren’t always diagnosed by a doctor – it was sometimes only the children’s views about specific concussion symptoms. Well, 31% of participants did receive a medical diagnosis of concussion, which is still very high, right? So should we give the benefit of the doubt to the other children and adolescents who participated in the research? We may as well, right?

You might be angry about this perceived attack on one of the great sports in [insert your country here : ) ]. If so, have a chat to children who you know and see what they think about this research.

You might not be able to access the article because you’re not at a university and it’s behind a paywall. If that’s the case, you could email the researchers to inquire about a free copy! Or pay the journal £34 to get access to the article! Or lobby the government that you as a (probable) tax payer, deserve access to research conducted on school children by sports organisations and universities!

To conclude …

Should we agree that no matter how fun and “character building” an activity is, if it imposes a 69% concussion rate risk during a student’s schooling, there should be some serious reviews? If you disagree, what’s your “acceptable risk”? Is 50% of children having a traumatic brain injury acceptable? Or 49%? I wonder what percentage of the children themselves think is tolerable when it come to traumatic brain injury in school sport.

End note: The struggles of grass-root sports during this pandemic will likely continue. Potential job losses at rugby organisations, along with many other sports, would be stressful and difficult for those involved. Let us hope that there are opportunities that emerge from this horrendous pandemic.

Joe P

The Pandemic and the Effects on Activity

As I wrote about in my recent book, physical activity is deeply political:

“Promoting physical activity requires suggesting (and sometimes dictating) what people do with their time, their money, their bodies and their minds. By espousing meanings of, reasons for, and policies to promote physical activity, a vast array of experts, from policy makers to academics and health promoters are, without hyperbole, engaged with the meaning of life.”

It’s unusual to emphasise something in parentheses, but

so unusual has this pandemic been,

so devastating the effects,

and so wide-ranging the interventions, that it is worth reflecting on.

The first three months of this pandemic has exposed many failures by governments to implement good policies to combat the virus. At the same time, the ways physical activity is organised and arranged has been the subject of intense debate. Here’s a rough chronology …

Concrete interventions deployed to keep people from moving too close. Rules, signs, instructions all deployed to manage people and their movement

Tensions between “stay at home” messages and “exercise for health” messages

The rationale of being active for “mental health” being emphasised by many spokespeople, seemingly to alleviate the built-up tensions of people confined for too long.

Anecdotal increases in people exercising in parks, with police required to manage belligerents who are not exercising (enough)

Anxiety about social distancing (which should really be called physical distancing).

The subsequent guilt of being out for too long, or shaming of those who are out for too long

Possible annoyance at others not remaining distant enough.

Possible shaming of those seen to be flouting the rules.

Urgent revisions made to cycling routes and pedestrian routes in some cities.

The erosion of at least some goodwill about distancing.

Academics have also responded. For example:

A litany of programmes and promotion material to get people active during lockdown

Academic journals dedicating issues on future of sport (in Managing Sport and Leisure and European Journal of Sport Management)

Intense questions about whose authority counts. For example, criticisms of lockdown “PE” on youtube

Most recently, in Ireland, “young people are being asked to choose having sex online or over the phone to stop the spread of Covid-19.”

The imposition of various degrees of limitations on all of us, and the transgressions that will inevitably occur will be testing for everyone. It is undoubtedly the case that we all need to manage our physical activity in different ways for the (un)foreseeable future. This will require heightened attention to sympathy, tolerance and respect for our own physical activity AND inactivity, as well as others’. Good luck to us all!

Joe Piggin