The sports world is filled with a lot of science but also a lot of ‘bro-science’. The former being data driven analysis with conclusions shifting based on where the data points. The latter being conventional wisdom which is sometimes right and sometimes wrong.
One ‘bro-science’ belief held by many in the world of both collision and combat sports is that athletes need to be exposed to hard hits early in order to toughen them up. In a “stark” example of conventional wisdom being dead wrong a study was published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal finding this thinking is backwards.
In the study, titled bodychecking experience and rates of injury among ice hockey players aged 15–17 years, the authors collected data over three seasons for over 1,000 teen hockey players. The group was broken down into those who had early exposure to body checking and those who did not. The injury rate in later years was then analyzed. The data revealed that those who were earlier exposed to checking were sustaining injuries at a much higher rate than the ‘protected’ peer group in later years. This included traumatic brain injuries.
The authors reached the following conclusions
We found that, among ice hockey players aged 15–17 years, the rates of all injury, injury resulting in more than 7 days of time loss and concussion were significantly higher among those with more bodychecking experience (≥ 3 yr) than in those with less experience (≤ 2 yr). These estimates were even higher when we restricted the analysis to those in their first year of play in leagues of this age category. This suggests that greater bodychecking experience does not protect adolescent ice hockey players from injury or concussion, and that the policy change to disallow bodychecking had no unintended consequences with regard to injury in subsequent years. In addition to the strong evidence showing reduced rates of injury in evaluations of the policy change,4,9,10 our results provide further evidence in support of removing bodychecking in youth ice hockey to prevent injury.
This is yet another study showing the brain is not something that can be ‘toughened up’ by early exposure to hits and in fact such practices have the exact opposite result.
The full abstract reads as follows:
Background: Although high rates of injury occur in youth ice hockey, disagreements exist about the risks and benefits of permitting bodychecking. We sought to evaluate associations between experience with bodychecking and rates of injury and concussion among ice hockey players aged 15–17 years.
Methods: We obtained data from a prospective cohort study of ice hockey players aged 15–17 years in Alberta who played in leagues that permitted bodychecking. We collected data over 3 seasons of play (2015/16–2017/18). We compared players based on experience with bodychecking (≤ 2 v. ≥ 3 yr), estimated using local and national bodychecking policy and region of play. We used validated methodology of ice hockey injury surveillance to identify all injuries related to ice hockey games and defined concussions according to the Consensus Statement on Concussion in Sport.
Results: We included 941 players who contributed to 1168 player-seasons, with 205 players participating in more than 1 season. Compared with players with 2 years or less of bodychecking experience, those with 3 or more years of experience had higher rates of all injury (adjusted incidence rate ratio [IRR] 2.55, 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.57–4.14), injury with more than 7 days of time loss (adjusted IRR 2.65, 95% CI 1.50–4.68) and concussion (adjusted IRR 2.69, 95% CI 1.34–5.42).
Interpretation: Among ice hockey players aged 15–17 years who participated in leagues permitting bodychecking, more experience with bodychecking did not protect against injury. This provides further support for removing bodychecking from youth ice hockey.