Saturday, May 10, 2008

Female athletes: tougher than you might think

Neate came across a very interesting book excerpt in this weekend's New York Times magazine. It's by Michael Sokolove, and called Warrior Girls: Protecting Our Daughters Against the Injury Epidemic in Women’s Sports: well worth a read. Sokolove makes some very interesting points, and presents a balanced picture overall, but the centre of the piece focuses on research suggesting that girls who play sports like basketball, volleyball and soccer suffer significantly more concussions and knee injuries than boys playing the same sports: by a factor of five in certain cases. According to the NCAA, women's soccer players suffer concussions at the same rate as men's football players. I actually came across some of this data while doing my piece on concussions, but it didn't seem to fit with the larger angle of the story, so I didn't include it there.

The problem is what to do with this data. Those who oppose the opportunities offered to women's sports by Title IX will certainly add it to their arsenal of arguments suggesting that women cannot, or should not, compete at high levels. This doesn't seem to be Sokolove's argument, as his piece focuses more on injury prevention (although it's tough to tell from only a book excerpt) but some will undoubtably take the stats without context. It's also a problem to go too far the other way, and suggest that biological differences have zero impact on athletics: as Sokolove writes, the higher flexibility and less muscle mass that most girls tend to have, and the corresponding differences in the way they move, can put them more at risk for certain injuries, particuarly those that affect the knees and head. This doesn't mean girls should be kept out of certain sports: I'd prefer to see them playing everything possible, but they (and their parents) should be fully appraised of the potential risks involved in each sport before they sign up.

Another danger is the lack of awareness on the potential dangers of returning to sporting activity too soon. As the article points out, some of the increased injuries likely come because girls tend to play through more pain than guys. In my mind, it's important to increase the education aspect of sports, for both men and women. The long-term health of the athlete should always be paramount, far more so than any title or championship. The biomechanic coaching Sokolove discusses seems very promising: if it proves to be effective at reducing the knee injury rate of athletes, perhaps club and school coaches should receive some training in identifying athletes whose natural motion could cause injury down the road. Rather than preventing them from play, they should perhaps be referred to biomechanic specialists early on, who can help them refine their form before they run into injury problems. Athletes of both genders should also be made aware of the serious risks of playing sports, and all athletes and coaches should have it drummed into their heads that no athlete should return from injury before they're ready.

The other interesting point the article brings up is the problems with the club system and the idea of early specialization in one particular sport. I've talked to several high-level coaches who are firmly against early specialization policies, and prefer recruits who have played several different sports, as this tends to develop better-rounded athletes. Each sport builds different strengths and skills, which the athletes can then incorporate into their other sports. Thus, I agree with this portion. However, the criticisms of the club system are too harsh in my mind.

As Sokolove writes, "In many sports, a youth athlete’s paramount relationship is now with a club rather than a school team. Annual fees and travel to tournaments often run into the thousands of dollars. Parents pay for camps and private sports tutors. The guiding principle is that childhood sport is too important to be left to volunteers and amateurs. The quality of coaching, in terms of skills and tactics, is probably better than in past generations, but it is also narrower. Rather than being coached by educators who see them during the school day and have some holistic sense of them as children, young athletes are now mentored by coaches who cultivate only their athletic side. ... The club structure is the driving force behind the trend toward early specialization in one sport — and, by extension, a primary cause of injuries. To play multiple sports is, in the best sense, childlike. It’s fun. You move on from one good thing to the next. But to specialize conveys a seriousness of purpose. It seems to be leading somewhere — even if, in fact, the real destination is burnout or injury."

I take issue with this. Playing multiple sports isn't childlike, in my mind: it can be seen as the best way to further develop an athlete's total talents. In fact, many of the best athletes have been drafted by a couple pro leagues, and some like "Neon" Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson have even been able to play in two leagues at once. Steve Nash has talked about how the skills he gained playing soccer have molded him into such a great basketball player: in fact, he's even been known to practice with MLS teams from time to time. There's a good reason a lot of hockey players warm up by kicking a soccer ball around. In short, multiple sports help develop high-calibre athletes to their full potential.

I'd also argue that yes, "childhood sport is too important to be left to volunteers and amateurs" - at the highest levels. I'm not in favour of forcing six-year-olds onto rep teams, but high-calibre athletes do need to be identified early and trained by professionals. European clubs are probably the best example of this, with the academy system (slowly taking hold with such North American clubs as Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps): much of Manchester United's late-90's success came from the players they brought up from their own academy, such as David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers. The academy system signs kids at eight, which is perhaps too young, but it does identify top talent early and gets professionals involved. Recreational and mid-competitive sport is incredibly valuable for those who aren't going to make a career out of the game, but we shouldn't focus on the recreational side to the exclusion of high performance. There is a "seriousness of purpose" for the top athletes, and that's a good thing in my books.

Anyways, this is obviously a very complicated topic to discuss. As Mary Jo Kane, the director of the University of Minnesota's Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport, pointed out to Sokolove, the problem with analyzing injury trends like these is they can be used as ammunition against women's sports by Title IX opponents.

"I’m not in any way suggesting that this topic should not be taken seriously,” she tells Sokolove. “We need to do everything we can do to prevent injuries. But when you look at the stories that get told, that those who cover women’s sports are interested in telling . . . it does seem that so little coverage focuses on women’s accomplishments, on their mental toughness and physical courage. There is a disproportionate emphasis on things that are problematic or that are presented as signs of women’s biological difference or inferiority.”

Sokolove made a similar point himself. "The bigger barrier, though, may be political, he wrote. "Advocates for women’s sports have had to keep a laser focus on one thing: making sure they have equal access to high-school and college sports. It’s hard to fight for equal rights while also broadcasting alarm about injuries that might suggest women are too delicate to play certain games or to play them at a high level of intensity."

This illustrates the central dilemna posed by this question. It's tough to look at ways to solve the evident injury problems in women's sports while avoiding the dangerous path of reducing opportunities for female athletes. My suggestion would be to make as much information as possible on injury risks for both men and women available to coaches, athletes and parents, and work on ways to correct movement patterns that might lead to injuries before they occur. The central goal, though, should be to allow as many athletes as many opportunities as possible. Women shouldn't be told that they're too delicate to play any sport: rather, just like the men, they should be informed of the risks and allowed to make their own decisions. Sports are dangerous, and high-performance sports more so, but that's no reason to stop people of any gender from playing.

- A great Journal column from Queen's soccer goalie (and Journal staff writer) Katie McKenna on gender equity in sports.
- Mary Buckheit's feature for ESPN's Page 2 on the six female U.S. soccer players who have continued their careers after becoming mothers: a very impressive group of athletes.

No comments:

Post a Comment