Youth MMA on the Rise Despite Injury Concerns
6 Jan, 2015By: Tracey Schelmetic
When most people think of mixed martial arts (MMA), they probably imagine shadowy gyms or underground parking garages. The sport, which was popularized by the UFC, now seems to be going “mainstream,” even to the point of youth leagues. These next-generation MMA participants could spur new growth in sports tourism from the youth level to amateur adult participation.
MMA is one of the fastest-growing sports among children: it’s estimated that about three million American children participate in mixed martial arts programs today, and it’s not just for the teenage crowd. According to the 2013 MMA for Fitness Single Sports Participation Report conducted by the Sports and Industry Fitness Association (SIFA), there were about 133,000 children ages 6 to 12 participating in MMA fitness training across America, and this number is expected to grow, thanks to popularization by television and movies, and a growing emphasis on combatting bullying in schools.
While the popular image of MMA might be bloody cage-fighting with gruesome looking weapons and props, youth MMA is more about fitness training, with elements of wrestling, grappling and martial arts such as jiu-jitsu, judo or taekwondo thrown in. Supporters say it helps kids with confidence, discipline and fitness, but the sport has more than its share of detractors, particularly in the youth arena.
When it comes to amateur or youth participation, there are concerns about high injury rates. A study published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine in 2014 found that injury rates for MMA were 228.7 injuries per 1000 athlete-exposures: considerably higher than other high-risk sports such as judo, taekwondo, amateur boxing and even professional boxing (with a rate of 118.0-250.6 injuries per 1000 athlete-exposures). Concussions, which are of concern for all athletes but particularly problematic for youth athletes, are a fairly common occurrence in MMA. A study that appeared in the American Journal of Sports Medicine last year found that when it comes to knockouts (KOs) and technical knockouts (TKOs), mixed martial arts cause more of these injuries compared to other combative and contact sports, and that the injury rates are far higher than previously reported.
Injuries aside, some detractors of youth MMA also see the growth driven by hypercompetitive parents who push their children too hard, emphasize winning over sportsmanship and take unhealthy pride in their kids’ reputation for brutality in competitions. Some see a need for regulation of youth MMA to prevent injuries. To date, California is the only U.S. state that has a codified set of regulations for kids’ MMA and covers mandatory protective gear, prohibits hits to the head and mandates a physician and an ambulance at all events.
"We tried to solve a problem and make something we think was dangerous safer," Andy Foster of the California Athletic Commission told Tampa’s WTSP.