During a high-school field-hockey game in September 2013, near her Virginia hometown, Brie Boothby was struck in the side of her head with an opponent's stick. Boothby blacked out.
"The only thought in my mind was getting back in the game," she told TODAY's Sheinelle Jones. And despite her injury, the field-hockey player kept playing. "I thought I had to be tough. I thought I had to go back in because we were losing and I needed to support my team."
That night, the 17-year-old felt nauseous, and began losing her memory. A trip to the doctor revealed devastating news: Boothby had sustained a serious concussion that left her with permanent brain injuries.
It took Boothby 10 months of physical therapy just to be able to stand up without falling over. Since then, Boothby said that her school work suffered, and she's been diagnosed with ADHD. "MY GPA dropped so much that I'm really anxious about college," she said. "I'm not sure if I'm gonna get into what I've worked for my entire life."
Boothby's story is one of more than 1 million young athletes who are brought to the emergency room every year. And a new study by national research group Safe Kids Worldwide may help explain why one child is taken to the emergency room for a sports injury every 25 seconds. The study's results show that young athletes are engaged in a dangerous culture comprised of ignoring sports injuries, and feeling pressure to play even when they're hurt.
The study, which surveyed 3,000 athletes, coaches and parents, found that:
- 42 percent of kids said that they have downplayed or hidden injuries so that they could keep playing.
- 53 percent of coaches said they've felt pressure to put injured players back in the game.
- Almost 1/3 of kids surveyed said it's "normal" to play rough in a game, to "send a message" to the other team.
While this problem in youth sports has been well-publicized, this new research found that many young athletes are still putting themselves at unnecessary risk.
"The awareness we have about injuries and the risk to our children is not matching the behavior that we're seeing on the field," said Kate Carr, president of Safe Kids Worldwide.
Doctors can't say if Boothby made her injury worse by continuing to play, but there are very serious risks for athletes who continue playing with a head injury.
"If kids return to play too soon after a concussion or a head injury, they're at risk for second impact syndrome, which is a really serious brain injury," said Dr. Tracy Zaslow, a sports medicine physician at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.
All 50 states now require young athletes to be pulled from play if a concussion is suspected, and many have restricted contact in youth sports practices. Sports associations say they're training coaches to resist pressure to play injured athletes, and the High School Coaching Association is pushing for new laws that would require medical personnel at all youth sports games.
Bootley said that until young athletes really understand the message, they'll continue to play. Even though it's now not what she recommends. "I think when in doubt, sit it out," Bootley said. "And yes, it might stink sitting under the lights on the bleacher. It's better to be safe than sorry. I mean, what is one game compared to your entire lifetime?"
Statement from John Engh, COO of the National Alliance for Youth Sports:
"It's disturbing to note that too many youth sports programs are conducted in a professional atmosphere where volunteer coaches feel pressured to play kids simply for the sake of winning a game with little regard for the child's overall health and well-being. Thankfully, thousands of recreation agencies have taken proactive approaches and are utilizing coach training programs to help these volunteers recognize dangerous injuries like concussions so that kids can be removed from the action before risking further injury; while also educating them so that they understand their roles and responsibilities so that they are better equipped to deal with the pressure from parents and players and can make decisions that meet the needs of the youngsters — not the adults in search of wins and league titles at any cost."
Statement from Bob Ferraro, Sr. CEO of the National High School Coaches Association:
"One of the biggest problems with youth sports is that they are unregulated. The National High School Coaches Association believes that there should be a standardization of rules that protect our young athletes when it comes to injuries. It should be mandatory to have medical personnel at each game to attend to injuries and to make all medical decisions about re-entry to the game. While current economics may make this financially impossible, the NHSCA suggests that youth programs seek-out athletic trainers , EMT's, doctors and nurses to volunteer their services."
For more information about the warning signs of concussions in youth sports, visit the CDC's website.