Spurred in part by fears about contact sports and concussions, state and national youth sports programs are pushing new strategies to protect student-athletes from injury.
Those strategies include encourage athletes to participate in more than one sport and putting new rules in place to reduce contact between students and better respond to athletes who suffer concussions.
Officials from the Michigan High School Athletic Association are among those advocating for students to play multiple sports. Advocates say that can reduce the chance of repetitive injuries.
According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, 45 percent of all athletes specialize in just one sport.
“If you focus on one sport there is more of a risk of injury. It’s repetitive and puts you more at risk,” said Dr. Kristy Carpenter, a physical therapist.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, there are 7.9 million participants in high school athletics.
Diane Shuck, athletic director at Douglas County High School in Castle Rock, Colorado, and former president of the Colorado Athletic Directors Association, said she’s seen concerns about injuries have an impact on participation in high school athletics.
“For example, two years ago we had a three-sport athlete get hurt in basketball and since her bread-and-butter was in softball, after her senior season she was not allowed to play basketball without risking her scholarship for softball,” Shuck said.
“I think some kids hear from club coaches the risk of high school sports and what it could do to their futures as well. However, I don’t think it has that large of an effect unless it is something that they cannot recover from.”
Although all sports carry risks, it’s football that is getting a lot of attention.
In Michigan, during the 2016-2017 school year 36,460 boys participated in football. That number is almost 2,000 less than the previous school term.
Michigan high school sports officials say football remains strong in the state, and is ranked No. 6 in the nation for 11-player football participation.
Fears among students and parents about injuries are part of the reason for a drop, officials say, but overall population in schools in Michigan also has dropped.
“We have lost population, said Geoff Kimmerly, media and content coordinator for the Michigan High School Athletic Association, yet “we have more schools now that have football programs than we did even five years ago.”
So we’re ahead of the curve there and we generally are always ahead of our population rank as far as overall participation,” he said.
The MHSAA is trying to address concerns about football injuries and safety. A new 2017 MHSAA rule limits how much collision contact high school football teams can have a day. During the preseason, teams are limited to no more than one collision practice before their first regular season game, and only 90 minutes of contact per week.
“Before it was a recommendation, now it’s a requirement,” said John Johnson, MHSAA director of broadcast properties. We’re having our schools report every single head injury and follow up with whether it was a concussion or not.
“And we saw that concussions were down about 11 percent, statewide, all levels. But we can’t take that to heart yet because schools are just getting used to how to report the information. So as we continue to do concussion studies year after year.”
Powerhouse high school football programs located right here outside of Lansing such as Grand Ledge and Dewitt have a history of being successful, and seem to contribute to Michigan always ranking high on the national scale.
Both teams play in the Capital Area Athletic Conference, and the Dewitt Panthers have had a history of being the team to beat clinching their seventh straight CAAC-Red title this past season.
Teri Reyburn, athletic director at DeWitt High School, outside Lansing, Michigan, said football remains strong in her district.
“Dewitt is a strong and traditional program,” Reyburn said “The parents trust it and we take several steps to minimize concussions. Kids start at the sixth-grade level as junior Panthers and their goal is to eventually wear that panther on the side of their helmet when they get to high school.”