Weighing in on Risks

(Note: I began writing this post before the International Olympic Committee decided that ping-pong was a more Olympics-worthy sport than wrestling.  There is now a Keep Wrestling in the Olympics page on Facebook which you can follow if you are interested, or you can visit www.TheMat.com)

All three are very athletic, and I’m sure they’d be pretty good, and they’ve all begged, but I don’t let my kids play football.  Flag football is fine.  So are neighborhood impromptus.  But not official-school-team football where you have 250-pound kids running into 130-pound kids.

It’s not that I’m afraid of my kids’ getting hurt.  Well, yes it is, but it’s a little more complicated.  Given the paragraph above, you might be surprised to hear that my youngest son, who just turned 12, is a wrestler.  For the past few months, I’ve been delightedly watching him compete in tournaments with our local youth wrestling club, and he’s moved up from “novice” (first-year wrestlers only) to “open” since he’s doing so well.

Have you ever watched a high school or college wrestling match?  It doesn’t have the theatrics of professional wrestling.  Instead, it has remarkably strong individuals using incredible force and twisting maneuvers in order to get their opponents off-balance, onto the floor, and into specific positions or “pinning” them on their backs.  It’s actually really exciting.  And it’s really exciting to watch my baby do it.  At least, it is when he’s in the better position, which so far he’s been in the vast majority of the time.  But I did NOT like it when an opponent had a hold of my child’s foot in what looked like a really unnatural position.

So how did an “absolutely-no-football” mom become an enthusiastic wrestling mom?  It actually wasn’t much of a transformation.  My boys are competitive athletes.  They run track and cross country.  They’ve played basketball.  They ride bikes.  They climb trees.  They know how to skateboard.  They’ve learned martial arts.  We hike in national parks.  We do not live a life free from risk.  There is no such thing.  If you hide inside your whole life, that brings it’s own set of dangers.

I look at data.  A doctor’s job is to look at data and assess risks.  To weigh the risks of doing one thing with the risks doing a different thing, or of doing nothing.  I did this with every patient, I help elucidate this for every client, and I of course do it with my family.

Virtually every sport carries a not-insignificant risk of injury.  Different sports have different rates of different types of injury.  One of the most dangerous aspects of high school and collegiate wrestling has been trying to lose a lot of weight quickly in order to “make weight” (since there are weight categories in wrestling, and you get to wrestle someone smaller if you drop into a lighter category, but of course becoming dehydrated and malnourished is a pretty stupid way to prepare for a battle of strength).  There are now rules in place (at least at the high school level) that limit how low each wrestler is allowed to go in weight.

There are a lot of upper extremity injuries in wrestling.  There are a lot of blown-out knees in football.  As awful as these are, they wouldn’t stop me from allowing my kids to reap the benefits of the sports – teamwork, physical fitness, accountability, commitment, sportsmanship, etc..  But the knee and shoulder injuries don’t scare me as much as potential high-velocity collisions or the long-term effects of repetitive head injuries.

Here’s my thinking:  Wrestling has weight classes.  It’s really not possible in wrestling, outside of heavyweight, to have a huge weight differential, but in football it’s quite possible for someone to be run into by someone who outweighs him by a factor of two.  Football, by its nature, involves full-speed body collisions, while wrestling is more of a steady-force-pushing kind of thing.  Yes, there are take-downs in wrestling that involve hitting the floor, but the rates of concussions differ significantly between the two sports.  Also, football practice involves repetitive collisions, and while each impact may be less than what is needed to cause a concussion, a cumulative high volume of sub-concussion head trauma is showing in current research to have long-term effects on the brain.  Again, no sport is totally free of this (cross country or track runners can certainly collide), but I can’t ignore how much of it there is in football.

For now, I am accepting the risks of wrestling because I see how much my son loves it, how much he loves learning the techniques and strategy, how strong he is becoming, and how good it makes him feel about himself.

Risks and benefits.  Different for every individual.  What risks are you willing to take for what benefits?

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