The benefits of high school sports are innumerable, but they come with an unavoidable drawback – injuries. The reality of athletic competition is bodies break down and injuries happen.
Despite this reality, efforts are always being made to minimize the risk of injury for the 7.7 million participants in high school sports. While that task might involve many individuals within the high school setting, perhaps no one plays a more significant role than the school’s athletic director.
Even in those schools that employ an athletic trainer, the athletic director coordinates communication among all groups – athletes, coaches, parents – to ensure all safeguards are in place.
Routine checks of facilities where practices and games are held is one preventative task handled by athletic directors.
Mike McGurk, athletic director at Lee’s Summit North (Missouri) High School, said this can include checking fields for disrepair and monitoring gym surfaces and padding, among other things.
Gary Stevens, athletic administrator at Saco (Maine) Thornton Academy, said inclement weather is another factor athletic directors need to monitor. Extreme heat and bitter cold can exacerbate medical conditions or injuries.
“Schools should develop plans and protocols for addressing August preseason weather, or those cold snaps that can hit the Northeast during the winter,” Stevens said.
He also said the preparation process extends to the athletes themselves. Pre-participation physical exams are essential to determining if athletes are fit to participate, and if there are any additional medical concerns.
“I also am a strong advocate of yearly health history updates where parents and students document any other factors that may contribute to potential injury,” Stevens said.
He said these reports give trainers and administrators information on joints and ligaments, but also allergies and other medical concerns. All are factors in making accurate decisions on participation.
Sandy Freres, athletic administrator at The Prairie School in Racine (Wisconsin), suggests teaching athletes and their parents about the importance of proper hydration, nutrition and sleep. They should be aware of the benefits of meeting those needs, and the dangers of not doing so.
Stevens echoed Freres’ sentiment.
“I firmly believe that many injuries could be prevented if students took care of themselves nutritionally when they are not participating in the activity,” Stevens said. “Eating balanced meals and having proper hydration ensures a healthier body, less fatigue and better conditioning, which are all connected to athletic performance.”
McGurk said education on nutrition and sleep ties in with another preventative measure – de-emphasizing specialization and promoting rest.
“One reason we are seeing more and more injuries is from overuse – kids are specializing at an earlier age and using the same muscles and joints without rest,” he said. “They aren’t resting their bodies and continue to play 50-plus softball games in a summer, and then go right into fall softball.”
McGurk said athletic directors are responsible for educating parents, coaches and athletes about these dangers. Those are the parties most directly involved in the decision-making process.
Athletic directors cannot solve every problem that arises; however, they can play a large role in who handles those problems on a day-to-day basis. Hiring the right coaches and athletic training personnel is crucial to preventing and treating injuries.
Amy Molina, athletic director at the U-32 School in Montpelier, Vermont, said an athletic trainer’s job begins and ends with injury prevention.
“This is accomplished in several ways – helping to educate athletes and coaches on best practice regarding strength and conditioning, stretching and nutrition,” she said. “The goal of our athletic trainer is to not have any injuries caused by overuse or poor conditioning.”
Stevens said athletic trainers should be properly equipped and supported by athletic directors.
“In my school, our athletic trainer is part of our team and has an equal status to each and all of our coaches,” he said. “Athletic trainers bring professional expertise to the equation, and their input needs to be valued when all decisions about programming are made.”
Ultimately, coaches are the ones working closest with athletes. Thus, they shoulder a significant responsibility in injury prevention. Administrators must invest in their coaches as well.
Rick Lilly, activities director at John Handley High School in Winchester, Virginia, said communication is an athletic department’s best tool in the fight against injury. Without collaboration between administration, trainers and coaches, athlete safety is jeopardized.
“School leaders must take an active role in the design and implementation of appropriate professional development for coaches,” Lilly said. “I believe the single most important component to injury prevention is to have coaches that properly teach safe practices and create a culture of respect and safety.”
Coaches almost universally support the benefits of a strength and conditioning program for their athletes, but McGurk said it matters in more than just the win-and-loss column. He said it works wonders for injury prevention as well since stronger, well-conditioned athletes are less likely to get injured. These programs are yet another way athletic administrators can stay one step ahead of injuries.
Although there is no way to eliminate all injuries from athletic competition, administrators must be prepared.
Molina, a trained scuba diver, said her experience in the water has application for athletic departments.
“I was taught to ‘plan my dive and dive my plan.’ That mantra saved my life when underwater,” she said. “Coaches must have the same mindset, not just for the X’s and O’s, but to ensure the safety of our athletes at all times.”
Ben Sieck is an intern in the NFHS Publications and Communications Department and a junior at Butler University.