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Addressing Teen Risk in Sports

We all know it. We all know our action sports have become riskier. Compared to 30 years ago or even 15 years ago, kids entering action sports today are dealing with the laws of physics jacked up on steroids. They are going faster, higher, farther, and adding complexities that make pioneering tricks of the 80s look like child’s play. What a wonderful demonstration of the pioneering human spirit - right? Sportgevity embraces athletic progression, but it also realizes that our attraction to the unknown, the frontier, or what others have not yet done, is a set up for drawing teens into some seriously high risk situations, especially in today’s climate.

In action sports, how do we balance the deeply engrained human instinct to learn and push our limits with staying alive and healthy? To start, it is probably worth investigating some of the deeper drives that promote learning and see how they balance out with smart decision making. Here we will take a brief look at the topics “ambiguity tolerance” and “ambiguity aversion” to begin exploring how we can improve the safety and longevity of our teens in action sports.

Ambiguity tolerance and ambiguity aversion live on the opposite sides of the risk tolerance spectrum from one another and refer to how well or how poorly we deal with the unknown. In general, the more tolerant you are of ambiguity, the more comfortable you are with uncertainty. Each of us is probably born with a tendency to live life on one side of the spectrum or the other. But with age we will drift towards being less comfortable with the unknown or less tolerant of ambiguity.

It is important and adaptive for teens to have “ambiguity tolerance” so that they are not overwhelmed by a world of impending unknowns such as what they are going to be when they grow up, what college they are going to attend, whom they are going to marry, where they are going to live. You can imagine what this trait does for learning in action sports. It allows kids to try a brand new trick, hit a bigger jump, or add an extra spin to their repertoire. This is the human spirit that we have all praised and applauded since the beginning of mankind. Energy drink companies have made billions of dollars tapping into it. Even though we all know caffeinated sugar drinks are not the best for us or our kids, we buy them anyway because of how successfully the companies associate  with athletes who have a great tolerance for ambiguity and who push the boundaries of human experience.

But what happens when this goes too far? What happens when the progression passes the point of what the human body was truly meant for? What happens when your teen, driven by the love of the unknown, attempts to push the level of a sport that is already at a critically high level? Furthermore, what happens when the successes and achievements of boundary pushing athletes are so highly promoted that it over shadows any of stories of injury or death? How we address teen risk taking in action sports is going to grow in importance as our sports push further and further.

An article entitled Adolescent’s Risk-Taking Is Driven By Tolerance To Ambiguity, by Tymula et al, published August 28, 2012 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, is a study worth tuning into to help us begin to understand how teens deal with risk. The study showed surprisingly that “adolescents were, if anything, more averse to clearly stated risks than their older peers”. But compared to adults, “what distinguished adolescents was their willingness to accept ambiguous situations.”  What this means is that, contrary to popular belief, adolescents may actually make wise decisions when they are aware of outcomes, but if they aren’t, they are more prone to drifting towards risk. The authors go on to suggest that “policies that seek to inform adolescents of the risks, costs, and benefits of unexperienced dangerous behaviors may be effective.”

But in our action sports culture today, there aren’t a lot of organizations taking this approach. This makes for a dangerous recipe, especially since teens are mostly exposed to green lights when it comes to pushing limits in these sports. Companies do not make money, at least thus far, by discussing openly and honestly issues of athlete morbidity and mortality. They make money by stoking reward, which is a supremely strong motivator of teen behavior. Shying away from discussing the reality of risk, and in some cases even glorifying the death of athletes who have passed away “doing what they loved”, makes a clear statement to teens that it’s worth it!

According to the study by Tymula et al, there is support for discussing with teens the true possible outcomes of their sport. As much as they deserve sexual education to learn what can happen with unprotected sex, they deserve to know what could happen to them in their sports. They deserve to know whether the professional athlete they admire is healthy from head to toe, or does he/she suffer from brain injury, chronic pain, or arthritic joints. They deserve to know, without bias, what has happened to others before them so they can make informed decisions as to where they are going to channel their creative and pioneering needs. If done correctly, future generations of  athletes and the sports will benefit, in that pioneering and learning will be guided towards sustainability.

How do you approach risk with your teen? What has worked and what hasn’t? Please tell us through our contribution page.

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