Voxitatis reported in August that while California is the most populous state in the country, the number of student-athlete equivalents participating in high school sports is highest in Texas.
A closer look at those numbers reveals that while football is, by far, the most popular sport in terms of participation, the numbers have been declining over the last several years across the nation and, in particular, in Texas, where “generation after generation of Texas men have taught their sons the sacred ritual of knocking the ever-living crap out of the guy across the line of scrimmage,” NPR reports.
In some states, the numbers are declining in football because parents are concerned about head injuries, but one student-athlete on a Texas high school team says the decline may depend more on the demands the sport makes on his time as well as on the recent push for players to specialize in only one sport.
Risk of concussion may be a deterrent to participation
Chase Averitt was the star quarterback as a sophomore for the junior varsity Trojans at Trinity High School near Dallas. He went to school for eight hours a day and added another 16 to 20 hours every week for football practice, game prep, and game play. That’s not including an hour or more of homework every night, either. Despite his love for the game, it was just too much.
“Just getting home at 9:00 every day for an entire year’s just exhausting after a while,” he was quoted as saying. “I don’t want to do homework—nothing.”
He suffered a serious concussion, despite excellent concussion management programs in place at Trinity, while chasing a long fly ball (in baseball) and running into the outfield wall. He lost consciousness when it happened, which is perhaps a better outcome than remaining alert and making a concussion worse by continuing to play. That injury kept him off the field for two and a half months, giving the brain time to heal to the satisfaction of concussion management software used at the school.
But other factors contribute to the downward participation trend
The school’s principal, Mike Harris, told NPR he didn’t think the risk of suffering a concussion was a deterrent for Texas student-athletes. “I’ve never had a specific parent come to me concerned about, you know, I don’t want my child to participate or, what are you guys doing to prevent this?” he was quuoted as saying.
Rather, he speculated that the drive to specialize in a single sport might be steering some students away from football. That’s what happened with Mr Averitt. “I got to my sophomore year, and just going back and forth between both, it seemed like I could do better in one if I could spend all my time on that. So I ended up choosing baseball,” he said.
Voxitatis reported in July that specialization in one sport doesn’t necessarily make student-athletes better in that sport and may promote injury by eliminating periods of rest for key body parts. We noted that research from 2000 and from 2013 would support the recommendation that student-athletes not specialize in a single sport during high school. Doing so, research suggests, may increase the risk of
- injury from overtraining or failure to rest muscle groups
- burnout from an increased focus or workout intensity
- limited options from a failure to diversify interest range
From the peer-reviewed American Journal of Sports Medicine, Feb 2:
Injured young athletes were older and spent more hours per week in organized sports. There is an independent risk of injury and serious overuse injury in young athletes who specialize in a single sport. Growth rate was not related to injury risk. The study data provide guidance for clinicians counseling young athletes and their parents regarding injury risks associated with sports specialization.
And here’s the consensus statement on youth athletic development from the International Olympic Committee, published on May 18:
Children are increasingly specializing in a sport at an early age, beyond the customary early specialization seen in gymnastics, swimming, diving, and figure skating. Various factors account for this contemporary phenomenon, including investment by the myriad stakeholders involved in sports, as well as incentives for Olympic and other athletic success. This has led to the development of talent identification and development schemes, aimed to identify and guide youth athletes towards professional sports, and/or Olympic achievement. The result has been an increase in competitiveness and professionalization within youth sport itself, intensified and expanded physical training and increased competition volume and frequency with insufficient allocation of time for rest and recovery. One consequence is an ongoing escalation in sport-related injuries and health problems at all levels of youth sports, including overuse injury, overtraining, and burnout.
In contrast to premature emphasis on a single sport, research suggests that youth should avoid early sport specialization, as diverse athletic exposure and sport sampling enhance motor development and athletic capacity, reduce injury risk, and increase the opportunity for a child to discover the sport(s) that he/she will enjoy and possibly excel at. Numerous successful elite athletes participated in several sports before specializing. However, the message would be reinforced with more definitive evidence indicating that children who participate in a variety of sports and specialize only after reaching the age of puberty, for example, tend to be more consistent performers, have fewer injuries, and adhere to sports play longer than those who specialize early.
These are important topics that need to be discussed, and so we have. However, the data upon which this report is based don’t really show any long-term decline in football participation in Texas, as NPR said it does.
When I look at the data above, which comes straight from the National Federation of State High School Associations, which, in Texas, gets it straight from the University Interscholastic League, I see a sharp increase in football participation in the fall 2010 season, followed by modest declines in participation in the five years since. But the participation last year, 163,998, is still higher than it was 12 years earlier, 157,778. Yes, there’s a downward trend now, but for NPR to resort to stereotypes of Texas was not proper, I believe.