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The martial art Tae Kwon Do combines powerful punches with kicks to the body and it is meant to be rigorous. But some experts believe new rules for competition could endanger children who compete.
During competitions, 12- and 13-year-old black belts will now be awarded points for knocking down their opponents with a kick to the head. Children in that age group used to be penalized for the exact same blow, but the new guidelines could change the way all children train.
Three congressmen, including Illinois Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who is himself a black belt, expressed outrage in a letter to the United States Olympic Committee, which governs Tae Kwon Do. The martial art is practiced by more than 6 million Americans.
"It's one thing to score a point, it's another thing to disable, where the goal is to disable a young person from participating in the sport, and quite possibly disable them from participating in any other activity for the rest of their life," said Jackson, a Democrat from Chicago.
Risk of Concussions
Although most tournaments require protective gear, including a padded helmet, Dr. Jordan Metzl, director of the Hospital for Special Surgery's Institute for Young Athletes in New York, warns that the new rules increase the risk of concussions.
"Kids with concussions are a real problem. It's very scary to parents and coaches because unlike a broken bone that you can see on an X-ray, a concussion is often an injury that you can't see," Metzl said.
Adult brains are active but no longer developing, whereas children's brains are more delicate, another expert said.
"Kids are really vulnerable to head injuries," said Dr. Lisa Callahan, a sports medicine specialist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, and a Good Morning America medical contributor. "Their brains are developing. A hit to a child's head can cause brain injury much more severe than what might happen at our ages."
With these new rules in place, one instructor believes that allowing kids to practice kicks to the head will better prepare them for competition.
"They're going to know how to react to it should they be hit," said Dan Greene, an instructor at Manhattan Tae Kwon Do. "If our competitors aren't allowed to train that way, they're not going to be prepared to compete and they're going to get hurt."
But in a recent article published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, one expert writes, "If the idea is to prepare children for combat, this places winning above children's safety."
Jackson said he is worried.
"I had Tae Kwon Do class earlier today and I got kicked in the head with full protective gear on and I'm still a little dizzy," Jackson said. "And I'm 40 years old."
Callahan said that as a physician she can't approve of the new rules. She said parents and coaches will have to be especially vigilant to protect children.
"Parents can look to the coaches and referees, because if this rule is going to be out there, and kids are going to start kicking to the head, a coach or referee can catch a kid with malicious intent and stop it before there's a problem," she said.
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