Let’s talk about risk-taking. In particular, to play football or not to play. (Full disclosure: I am a football fanatic.) But we should broaden the question to include many sports.

Today I’m looking at the front page of The New York Times. Above the fold is a 5.5-inch-wide, 8.25-inch-deep color photograph of star professional skier Lindsay Vonn. She is being choppered out of the world championships in Austria after a high-speed crash. She lost her balance on a landing jump, flipped in the air, landed on her back, smashed through a gate, ripped up two ligaments in her right knee, and broke a bone in her leg. This is the sixth straight major championship in which Vonn has been hit with injuries.

Ah, you say. I’m defending football by pointing out the injuries that can happen in so-called non-contact sports. The risk of contact versus no contact does enter into the equation when deciding what sport to play. But how many people every day make personal decisions whether or not to take a risk, or risks plural, on their job and with their lives? In major and minor ways, I’d say just about everyone.

Are you going to buckle up or not? Quit smoking or not? Follow the doctors’ orders or not? Buy a house now or wait? Run the red light? Drive home from the bar after one too many, knowing you shouldn’t.

Decisions, decisions

On the job, how about deciding to skip obtaining the confined space entry permit? Skip lockout-tagout procedures to jump a barrier and get a machine going again. Text while you drive. Speed to get to your client meeting on time and hope there are no police around. Decide to speak up at a safety meeting to tell the boss how ineffective the training is, or keep your lips zipped?

Many personal biases are at play in all these risk decisions. Past experiences, future expectations, personality characteristics and if you want to go deep enough, external contingencies (jail time) and cultural norms (peer pressure).

If you yourself played football, the odds are greater you’d allow your boys to play, anyway. Girls, while a few do take up the sport when they’re young, have extra biases going against them. My son played youth football when he was in second grade. In the last game of the season, the one girl on his team, who happened to be one of the better players, got blind-sided by a kid who ran halfway across the field to take her out. Because she was a girl who “needed a lesson.”

I wanted my kid to play football because of my bias; I love the game. I wanted to toughen him up. Yep, there’s that cultural macho thing. I didn’t have to push him hard; he liked the sport and wanted to try out. His friends were trying out, so there was the peer pressure thing.

Hindsight is what it is

Looking back, it seems ridiculous to me now. Second graders do not need toughening up. This isn’t the Marines. There will be plenty of years for that. I would have started playing him when he was older and his body was bigger. The volunteer dads who coached, some forced into it for lack of volunteers, received no training on how to coach. This was before concussion awareness, so there was no coaching on how to play the game without helmet-on-helmet hits.

These were seven and eight year olds. Just getting their attention was an effort. Getting them to huddle and line up for plays was a chore. Some youth leagues are exceptional in their organized structure, be it football, baseball, gymnastics, ice hockey, basketball, wrestling, lacrosse, soccer and so on. These “cultures” operate on a system that has been in place for years. The coaching is serious and superior. Kids are evaluated on skills tests. The game strategy, the plays, are simple. And they remain the same every year, often instructed by the high school coaches.

You should check into these things before committing your son or daughter to a sport. Township intra-mural sports are low stakes, low risk, and easier to commit to. But when you get to the travel squad sports, coaching matters. It is a risk factor to consider. Organization matters; it can increase or decrease risks. The values, the mission of the youth organization matter. They create the “norms” by which your kids will be expected to play. Step back and assess the “culture” of your local youth sport organization. Is it about participation, basic learning, or all–out winning?

One thing I was reminded of when my son played “midget” football. The sport is about hitting. Do you enjoy hitting people, tackling hard, blocking hard? Do you shake off and forget about hits when you get laid out? The game will be perceived as less risky for those who like to hit, and don’t mind being hit. For those of us, fathers and their kids, who don’t like getting the wind knocked out of us, the risk is greater in our minds.

Working scared

And there is something to be said truthfully about playing — or working a job — when your mind is preoccupied with the idea of getting hurt. It’s a dangerous line to walk. You either increase the risk of getting hurt because your concentration wavers, or you play it safe so the worst doesn’t happen to you. Being safe often means slowing it down. In contact sports, that leaves you vulnerable. On the job, whether at a computer screen or on a construction site, work too slow and you’ll hear about it. Do you want to risk it?

My son didn’t go on playing football. That was fine by me. He gave it a shot. I wasn’t especially relieved that this meant less of a chance of him getting injured. That didn’t enter my thinking. Anyway, he ended up being a pole vaulter in high school. Watching my kid dash down a lane, stick his pole in a box, fly over a bar 12 feet or higher, or crash into it, and then land hopefully on his back, on the foam pad, took my breath away more than just about anything I’ve seen on a football field.

Risk-taking is obviously unpredictable. People like my son will pass on one kind of risk, yet go all out faced with a different risk, maybe even more dangerous. Some days my son wasn’t “feeling it,” and didn’t push the pole vaulting envelope. Other times he was jacked and almost literally threw caution to the wind.

The same goes for people on the job. You don’t ever truly know how they will approach risk. Because they themselves don’t know day to day what might come up.