HSS CEO: We Owe Parents Awareness on Sports Health Risks, Benefits

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This month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released its new Physical Activity Guidelines, an important document that federal agencies and other organizations use to guide policies and priorities. For the first time, youth sport was identified as a prime opportunity in building healthy communities, with its capacity to introduce active lifestyles that extend into adulthood. Among the calls to action: Help people find the best activities for them, based on their individual health needs.

The report underscored the importance of the Aspen Institute’s Project Play and, in particular, the value of the Healthy Sport Index, released with the Hospital for Special Surgery in October. It’s the nation’s first-ever tool that assesses the relative benefits and risks of participating in the most popular sports for high school students, based on data and expert insights collected over two years. TIME wrote that the free tool “couldn’t be more timely” as a resource for families, pediatricians and other stakeholders navigating the challenging landscape of youth sports, hoping for positive personal outcomes.

Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, sat down recently with the CEO of HSS, Lou Shapiro, to discuss his organization’s interest in the Healthy Sport Index as well as Project Play 2020, the working group of leading organizations that includes HSS and is aimed at lifting sport participation rates and related metrics among youth. Excerpts of their conversation are below.

Tom Farrey: How do you feel the Healthy Sport Index (HSI) will be useful? 

Lou Shapiro: The HSI is a one-of-a-kind tool created by industry experts that helps young athletes, their parents, and other key stakeholders to make well-informed decisions about sports participation. This is the first resource that helps people decide which sports are right for them based on what’s important to them. Providing information that hasn’t been available until now fills a significant need for a large number of people.  

Farrey: What do you like most about the HSI?

Shapiro: The scope of the index and its flexibility are two tremendous aspects of the tool that I really like. Not only are the top 10 high school sports for boys and girls presented, but the index also provides recommendations for complimentary sports as well as educational materials, articles, and useful resources for each sport. In addition, the tool provides users with the ability to use a sliding scale to prioritize the health benefits and risks of sports participation that represent them as individuals.                

Farrey: Hospitals treat the hurt and the sick. So why did HSS invest in a tool that helps prevent injuries, promotes health, and keeps people out of the hospital? 

Shapiro: The knowledge that has propelled HSS to world leadership in musculoskeletal health provides us with the opportunity to support the preservation of health and personal fulfillment for the most vulnerable individuals in our communities. HSS has an obligation to apply our knowledge to reduce the risk of injury, promote healthy lifestyles, and maximize human potential across the lifespan for all individuals, but most especially our children. 

Farrey: Project Play aims to give stakeholders the tools to build healthy kids and communities through sports. What do we owe parents? 

Shapiro: In a national survey that we conducted of more than 1,200 parents, health benefits and injury risks related to sports participation were ranked as two of the top types of information that parents want before enrolling their children in sports. This information has never before been available to the parents and families of children interested in playing sports. We have created an amazing tool to help parents make informed decisions as advocates for their children. We owe it to them to promote awareness and use of the index as much as possible.

Farrey: How important are parents as agents of change in youth sports? 

Shapiro: We recently learned just how important parents can be as change agents. According to the survey that we conducted, more than 90 percent identified themselves as the primary decision-maker when it comes to enrolling their children in organized sports. Nearly 75 percent of these parents also included their children in the decision-making process, but only 12 percent looked to coaches or other individuals for help. Data like this gives us a sense of just how much parents are advocates for their children and how much influence they have over sports-related decisions. 

At the 2018 Project Play Summit, Encourage Sport Sampling panelists discussed how to utilize the Healthy Sport Index.

Farrey: What other sectors or groups could use the HSI? 

Shapiro: In addition to parents and their children, civic leaders, health and medical organizations, sport governing bodies, coaches, sports administrators, educators, and sports medicine clinicians can all share in the dissemination and use of the HSI to those they represent, educate, and care for.  

Farrey: What do you hope sport leaders do with the tool and its information (which includes suggestions of best practices)? 

Shapiro: Sports administrators and leaders at the community, regional, and national levels are encouraged to learn from this tool and leverage its information to guide their own decision-making process as it relates to the long-term health and wellness of our children. I hope sports leaders use the HSI as a roadmap – a guide to making improvements in their organizations that benefit their young athletes. While the index gives us insight into the risks and rewards of playing high school sports right now, much work can be done to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks of sports participation in the future.

Farrey: How can you see doctors and health providers, or even insurance providers, utilizing the Healthy Sport Index? 

Shapiro: Education about the benefits of sports participation is one of the most valuable services that medical providers and insurers can provide to their patients and customers. Using the Healthy Sports Index as part of a comprehensive approach to the preservation of children’s health would be a welcome contribution from the medical community. 

Farrey: How does HSS plan to use the HSI within its network?

Shapiro: The HSS Sports Safety program works with hundreds of community partners that represent well over 1.5 million young athletes throughout the tri-state region (New York, Connecticut, New Jersey). The HSI will be a valuable addition to the public health education that we provide to this network. In addition, our sports medicine physicians, therapists, and performance staff can provide this tool to the parents of children we care for who have sustained injuries playing sports. 

Farrey: One key finding from the HSI research is that in many sports kids who play in high school had specialized in their sport by age 10. How does this knowledge shape our understanding of the challenge we have to increase multisport play? 

Shapiro: The challenge of increasing multisport play for young athletes cannot be understated. Many studies have shown that early sport specialization is detrimental to the health and development of children, yet advocates continue to promote its perceived benefits. The Healthy Sport Index has synthesized data in a way that has never been done before, providing an evidence-based rationale for sport sampling that immediately challenges the status quo.  

Farrey: Why is HSS a member of Project Play 2020?

Shapiro: HSS is uniquely positioned to help keep children active by providing educational tools and resources that reduce their risk of injury. HSS is aligned with Project Play’s mission to increase opportunities for sports participation for children everywhere. But with increases in opportunities to play sports come increases in opportunities for injury. We are proud members of Project Play 2020 and are committed to sharing our knowledge and expertise to train all coaches and encourage sport sampling for young athletes.

Learn more about Project Play and Project Play 2020.