Being a parent in sport can make your head hurt too

Being a parent in sport can make your head hurt too

We all have many roles to play in life as a child, partner, employer/employee, sibling and, for many of us, as a parent. I could write this professionally as someone passionate about duty of care in sport, but I choose to write it as “Dad”. A Dad who has played rugby, coached rugby, volunteered in rugby and watched it played by my son as he has grown (and grown).

This chapter about our relationship starts in the Autumn of 2017 and 15 months on it has still to end. I’m sure it will sooner rather than later and I’m pretty sure it will have a happy ending.

You see Harry has been suffering all that time with “post-concussion” syndrome. He took a run of the mill collision playing the game he and I love but unfortunately, he wasn’t given the appropriate support he felt he should have so was selected to play again too soon and a second collision caused another head injury. Nobody wishes an injury of any sort on a player – but especially your own child. With a physical injury you can see the recovery – a limp disappears; mobility comes back over time to a broken arm. But, with a head injury it is so much harder to deal with and the consequences over this period of time have been hard to watch. A vicious cocktail of

  • Blinding headaches
  • Trouble with his vision
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Anxiety
  • An inability to sleep
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Mood swings

Over 15 months. In Harry’s case he was playing for fun and fitness and was pursuing a military career as an officer.  There were continual postponements of periodic assessments because of this mental illness but when he did do them, he did them exceptionally well. He’d just got to do the final assessment – and his supporting officer was confident he’d do well – and he would have achieved his goal. But, with all the postponements he had to resit an annual medical. He failed because of his head injury and was told he had to be symptom free for two years. Effectively a career in the military was over.

Harry is in his 20’s but he’s still my son and I’m still his dad. We have a connection and you will with your son or daughter, and you will want sport to be in their lives into adulthood and to share the joy of participation with their children – your grandchildren.

You can tell this is hurting not only my boy but me too. It’s not always front of mind but it’s not far from it. It “empties my jug” drip by drip. It all sounds a bit doom and gloom and it’s not. Harry loves his sport and I have loved  watching him as he’s run, fought as a black belt at judo and done a triathlon. He’s getting better with a combination of both professional help and the love of those around him. And he wants to do sport again, with my blessing.

Playing sport is worth the risks for all the well-rehearsed reasons and the risks can be minimised. If you are thinking of taking your son or daughter to play sport, don’t be afraid to ask questions about the club or school’s approach to duty of care – safeguarding  for example. Talk to the safeguarding officer or lead, talk to the coaches or teachers, talk to other parents about how they see the culture of the club or sport delivery and their attitude to safeguarding or return to play protocols. Is the visibility of duty of care “restricted” to policies on a website or can you see it, touch it even, in the running of the club or team.

With respect to head injuries make sure you understand EVERYTHING about concussion – symptoms to look for, effects of concussion, return to play guidelines and make sure the club or school your son or daughter plays at has nominated individuals do too. England Rugby have a specific section on their website where you can learn more, as do a number of sporting governing bodies.

My wife and I have not wrapped our kids in cotton wool and have been on a journey of shared responsibility with them involving them in decision making about sport and other opportunities in their lives. It was a bit from the “Brian Clough School” of collaboration when they were younger – we’d talk about an issue and “agree” to do it our way. Now, they are independent and can make their own  decisions, but they have not lost their connection to us or their home, seeking our opinion before making their own informed decisions about life.  I’m pleased  we have these established open lines of communication. This has been so important during this time as it’s often felt like we have had a tighter grip on our end of the virtual rope that connects us than Harry. But he hasn’t ever let go of his end.

My last word of advice would be that you have to look after you as a parent so that you can give your energy and support to your child – whatever age he or she maybe. An injury will probably be stressful, and you will be anxious. You can’t let that be overwhelming as you have those other roles still to play. Talk to professionals, talk to other parents, talk to your partner. It’s okay not to be okay from time to time but start a conversation about your concerns.


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