As a parent I fully support and actively encourage my children’s involvement in a range of sports activities. Sport can bring about so many positive developments and watching my son play rugby this season I have seen improvements not only in his physical skill level but also his psychological and social skills. For example, his decision making, concentration and attitude have all developed. Similarly, his confidence, and general maturity when talking to coaches and referees have carried forward into every aspect of his life. Despite this at the back of my mind is the knowledge that as he gets older and tackling becomes part of the game (from U9 onwards) perhaps the risks will begin to outweigh the rewards. In particular the risk of spinal injury is the scariest to contemplate. But what is the nature of such a risk and am I just being an overprotective mother?
What is the risk?
Fuller (2008) found that “the risk of catastrophic injury in rugby union was comparable with that experienced by most people in work-based situations and lower than that experienced by motorcyclists, pedestrians and car occupants” and concluded that “the risk of sustaining a catastrophic injury in rugby union could be regarded as acceptable and that the laws of the game therefore adequately manage the risk”. MacLean and Hutchinson (2012) conducted an audit of U19 player admissions to spinal injury units in Great Britain and Ireland. They found that U19 rugby players sustained serious neck injuries requiring admission to spinal injury units with a low but persistent frequency, with the rate of admission in Scotland being “disproportionately high”. The study also highlighted the lack of a register of catastrophic neck injuries making it difficult to accurately track the number of rugby related neck injuries in U19 players. Whilst the risks involved in rugby have received a lot of media attention in recent weeks it is important to note that any sport which involves movement and force can cause spinal injury, like football, water sports, wrestling, rugby, and ice hockey (Mishra, 2010).
Although the statistics were informative as a qualitative researcher I wanted to explore this risk through people’s thoughts, feelings and emotions. In other words the real stories of the risks of rugby.
George Robinson’s Story
In July 2015 an English school boy, George Robinson (aged 17) suffered a transection of his spinal cord whilst playing rugby for his school in Cape Town. George underwent surgery in South Africa and when safe to be moved was flown home in September and is still undergoing extensive rehabilitation. At present George’s movement below the neck is limited to his right bicep and minimal movement in his left. George’s story is an inspiring one and I have followed it closely over the past eight months. The rugby community have united to provide endless demonstrations of support and encouragement to George and the positivity of the young player and his family is astounding. In particular I was interested to hear both George and his father’s views on rugby and the current debate whether to remove tackling from the school game. Talking to The Times George’s father Simon Robinson said:
“We have discussed it as a family…I would do anything for this not to have happened but I just think [that] it is the nature of physical sport. You can cross a road and get knocked over by a car or a bicycle. That is what happens in life”.
Both the family and George himself still place emphasis on the value of sport and it is captivating to hear their viewpoint. Mr Robinson stated:
“We love the values of sport; the enjoyment it gives, the satisfaction it gives, the team spirit. That has been an incredibly important part of our life and still is. We spoke to George and he supports the nature of the game. He doesn’t know how else you would have the game”.
David Ross’ Story
George and his family are not alone in their views. David Ross, who broke his neck playing rugby at 18, expresses similar opinions. David, who is paralysed from the neck down, has aspirations to play wheelchair rugby in Tokyo 2020 and is once again an example of tremendous resilience and determination. David feels that “People who get involved in rugby, … know it's a contact sport and they know what they're getting in for and injury is part of all sport”. As part of his rehabilitation David stresses the need to keep pushing himself to keep his body healthy to ensure he is in the best condition to aid his recovery. I began to wonder whether playing rugby perhaps provided both George and David with the mental toolkit that has led them to approach their rehabilitation with such tenacity and resolve.
Matt Hampson’s Story
Former England player Matt Hampson suffered a spinal injury in training in 2005 aged just 20 when a scrum collapsed. Hampson has spoken about how his background as a sportsman provided him with the coping skills required to deal with such an injury:
“I think the mental strength comes from being a rugby player, from being at Leicester Tigers where it is a tough upbringing,"
Not only is Hampson coping with his own injury but he works tirelessly to help other sportspeople cope with theirs. Hampson set up the ‘Matt Hampson Foundation’ to raise money for his own treatment as well as helping others like George Robinson. Rugby is still very much a part of Hampson’s mentality:
"My approach to rugby is the way I lead my life - always wanting to improve and always wanting bigger and better things. That is what I was like as a rugby player and that is what I am like as a fundraiser now."
The stories of George Robinson, David Ross and Matt Hampson are extremely powerful. All three players hold such passionate views about the value of sport and have demonstrated extreme levels of resilience and grit to overcome adversity that surely their voices and opinions should be the most prominent ones in this discussion.
In relation to my son and his rugby, as a parent I’m sure I will continuously worry about every aspect of keeping him safe, but if playing rugby instils in him the same remarkable values and attributes that George, David and Matt demonstrate then I will be an extremely proud mother.
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