Many years ago I had my worst experience on the lacrosse field. I was officiating the final youth game in the Atlanta Youth Lacrosse League on a chilly Saturday evening in November. For the first few minutes, the game was uneventful. It was just a bunch of kids enjoying their time on the field, and parents happy that their kids were happy.
Then, the hit happened.
The goalkeeper, I’ll call him Scott, saved the ball and jogged up the field. None of his teammates could shake their opponents, so he kept going until he reached the top of the box. Then he saw a midfielder get open and Scott took a step, aimed, and put the ball right on target.
An instant later, Scott was demolished with a cross-check to his neck from his blind side.
One of my jobs as the trail official, in any clearing situation, is to protect the passer on long passes. I threw my flag immediately and ran to Scott as I blew the whistle.
My heart was in my throat as I dropped to my knees next to Scott, and I was relieved to see him still breathing and conscious. But, I was concerned about a more serious injury.
Scott was scared; I spoke calmly. He wanted to move; I kept him immobile. My officiating partner, Andy, appeared next to me, equally concerned. Looking back, I wish we had an Emergency Action Plan as part of our league. We had not prepared for this contingency, but we knew enough basic first aid, and had enough common sense, to keep Scott still and call 911.
Maybe eight minutes passed before Andy is directing an ambulance onto the field. The EMTs were professional and compassionate. They strapped Scott onto a stretcher and left for the hospital.
As the ambulance turned the corner and went out of sight; I looked around at a bunch of scared faces. Andy and I had done what we could for Scott, and now we had to care for thirty boys who had just seen their friend stretchered off the field. We spoke calmly, despite our hearts beating a mile a minute. In these situations, children need to see the adults in control of themselves.
The young player that hit Scott was a wreck. He sobbed on the ground, while his dad tried to tell him that his friend would be okay. He was inconsolable, but we consoled him all the same.
Andy and I spoke with the coaches and parents, and told them the game was terminated. Then we drove to the ER with Scott’s dad. Shortly after we arrived, the dad of the player that hit Scott walked in with his son.
The five of us spent the next four hours nervously waiting on scan results. Scott’s dad was more composed than I thought any dad would be in this situation. He explained to Scott’s teammate that these things can happen in any game with contact, and that he knew he did not hit Scott with any malicious intent.
Thankfully, Scott was released to his father’s care with no injury. Doctor’s evaluated him for a concussion, scanned his brain and spine, and took care to make sure Scott was in good health, and he was.
The purpose for recounting this frightening story is twofold. One, it serves to put a name on what is usually dry, cold statistics on injuries in lacrosse. We can all read about concussion rates, equipment testing, and safer sport initiatives, but without deep and personal stories, the data remains distant to our day-to-day experiences.
It becomes easy to think, “That will never happen to my son,” or, “My daughter is not at risk,” without discussing real world situations that demand our collective action for a safer sport.
Two, this story is a lens through which we can peer into the past, and see how far we have come in the safety of contact sports in America.
When this event occurred, around 2011, the national understanding of concussions was in its infancy. Youth rules were becoming more stringent on hits to the head and hits to defenseless players, but there was pushback that we were bubble-wrapping our snowflake children from harm and taking the fun out of the game in the process. I suppose those with that attitude never spent hours in a hospital waiting to see if a twelve-year-old would be paralyzed.
Fortunately, our collective understanding has shifted. Aside from a vocal minority that willfully disregards science in favor of a perverse view that the potential for grievous physical injury builds character, we are getting smarter about safety in sport.
In the 2013 study, Rate of Injury Among Youth Lacrosse Players, researchers concluded that:
The majority of injuries for both boys and girls youth lacrosse players were minor and included strains, sprains, lacerations, and contusions. Less common but present were more severe injuries including fractures, dislocations, and concussions. […] Because health professionals are typically not present at youth lacrosse games, these findings suggest that it may be worthwhile to educate parents and coaches of youth players about signs and symptoms of concussion for injury identification and development of a concussion action plan for medical evaluation.
Since 1999, US Lacrosse has been at the forefront of safety in lacrosse with the formation of the Sports Science & Safety Committee. Today, US Lacrosse continues to lead the way in making the game safer by developing resources for league administrators, parents, coaches, and officials. Some of these resources include Standardized Youth Rules, Age & Eligibility Guidelines, Athlete Development Model, Concussion Awareness, and more.
Created in 2016, the Center for Sport Science at US Lacrosse is “devoted to research, education, collaboration, policy development, and best practices guidelines that benefit the safety and wellness of lacrosse players, with a particular focus on youth players.”
As part of our commitment to improving the well-being of lacrosse participants at all levels of play, US Lacrosse has invested more the $1 million in health-related research funding.
Grant Skinner, research coordinator for the Center for Sport Science, noted that, “Concussions, and other contact injuries, are declining with the introduction of rules that reduce body and stick checking, as well as collisions. Additionally, equipment advances, and continued education for officials and coaches aid the reduction in injury rates.”
There will always be a risk for injury in any lacrosse game, but you owe it to your league, your team, and your child to be prepared in the event of an emergency.
The question is, are you prepared? If not, we have the resources to help you handle difficult situations.
Gordon Corsetti serves as manager of the men’s officials’ development program at US Lacrosse.