The numerous benefits of healthy and fun sport participation are clear. However, there are recognized factors that interfere with enjoyable and sustainable participation for many students. Timeconsuming
workouts and competition schedules, often coupled with overly intense specialization in a single sport, can place unsustainable physiological, psychological and social demands on the scholastic athlete. Such demands may lead to a cascade of preventable injuries, burnout and eventual dropout from sport. In contrast, for those with limited sports experience, there are often too few opportunities to participate in high school athletics in an environment where learning fundamental skills of the sport(s) take priority and not a distant back seat to winning.
The 2016 NFHS Summit on Enhancing Participation, Reducing Injury Risk and Optimizing Performance was held in July in Indianapolis, with a balanced, diverse representation from high school coaches, athletic department administrators, state executive directors, sport and sports medicine governing bodies, clinical and scientific experts, and NFHS staff and leadership. The charge for the two-day summit was to develop a practical and definitive plan and accompanying consensus document for all member state associations emphasizing evidence-informed best practices to:
Accordingly, the Essentials and Key Action Measures outlined in the Consensus document are built upon currently accepted best practices for setting and working toward realistic and achievable goals of healthy, sustainable, meaningful and enjoyable sport participation, while, at the core, maintaining the emphasis on optimizing the student’s scholastic athletic experience. This document will also serve as the guiding reference for a more wide-reaching and ongoing promotion and implementation of the NFHS Essentials Initiative.
The scholastic athletic experience must always be viewed as an evolving and unpredictable continuum. Early success or struggle is not always predictive of future performance, engagement or enjoyment
in sport. Whether an athlete is seen as potentially “elite” or is participating in competitive sports for the first time, it is vital that the sport is taught, and the athlete given the chance to develop his or her skills, in a manner that minimizes injury risk and makes the experience enjoyable and rewarding. And while the roles and perspectives of parents and coaches are integral to a young athlete’s experience, the athletic development and sport participation process must always remain student-centered.
The Essentials Summit Consensus document uniquely provides specific and practical guidelines that are central to each stakeholder group – athletes, coaches, parents, athletic administrators and state associations. It also addresses prominent concerns in scholastic sports and provides specific recommendations to minimize common threats to a student-athlete’s health, participation, performance and enjoyment.
Insufficient preparation and readiness, undue physical fatigue and injury, as well as insufficient sleep, excessive training/competition, poor nutrition, unsustainable psychological stress, and external pressure to succeed, can readily undermine the sport experience. Moreover, no student-athlete should be forced to compete, train or practice if it will interfere with or delay recovery from
an illness or injury.
At this point, we do not have enough information to declare sport specialization inherently good or bad. However, it is important to emphasize that the specific process of individualized athletic development and self-driven desire of the student are what matter the most. Therefore, the Consensus document underscores how sport specialization can be managed appropriately and in the best long-term interest of the scholastic athlete. While the benefits of multi-sport participation are well-recognized, multi-sport athletes can still be injured if they are “overworked“ – that is, the physical and/or psychological demands and expectations are unhealthy and unsustainable. Conversely, if properly managed with appropriate progression, diversity and variability in training and competition, and sufficient rest and recovery, students may be safely ushered through sport specialization.
The hallmark of the Essentials Initiative is that it will evolve – change, develop and expand over time – responding to new information and feedback, as well as from ongoing tracking of impact and outcomes.
Athletic administrators will play a key role in championing the Essentials Initiative throughout the school community, as well as in seeing that coaches and parents are properly focused on the student-centered developmental model. State associations must extend and reinforce this message consistently statewide. However, much of the intended outcome of the Essentials Initiative will be realized through the roles and responsibilities and widespread uptake by the athletes, coaches and parents.
While early sports experiences are largely guided by parents and coaches, the student-athlete should be empowered to take greater individual control of the sport experience as he or she matures. This process starts with proper sleep and maintaining a nutritious, well-balanced diet with adequate energy intake. The student is also responsible
for promptly reporting injuries and recognizing the importance of discontinuing activity (conditioning, practice and competition) when needed to allow full recovery, even if this conflicts with pressure from parents or coaches.
At all levels of athletic participation, every coach has an essential and influential role as an educator, mentor and role model. It is important that each athlete has a sufficient foundation of fitness, athleticism and skill, and physical and psychological resilience to support the expectations and demands of sport training and competition. Training should be variable and diverse, while being guided by a long-term process of progressive, individualized athletic and character development, and enhanced by proper recovery, rest and sound nutrition. Coaches need to recognize the warning signs indicating when “training” becomes “straining” and respond promptly to those early, reliable indicators of evolving athletic overload, overuse or apparent injury.
The parent’s role should evolve over time from initially leading and guiding (and often coaching) their child during youth sports into what is ideally a supportive role throughout high school. Parents need to accept that athletic development, achievement and success unfold uniquely for each child, and an elite status is typically, if at all, revealed over time. The parent must also fully embrace the necessity of letting the child own his or her athletic experience.
A Call to Action
The Essentials Initiative will only succeed with a concerted and widespread effort by NFHS and its member state associations – at every administrative level – to deliver and continually reinforce all key components featured in the Consensus document. In turn, all those involved with scholastic sports have an opportunity and responsibility to embrace these tenets, take action to incorporate steps that support their respective roles, and expect these best practices, goals and outcomes from others who have contributing positions and influence in developing our young scholastic athletes.
With help from selected members of the 2016 NFHS Essentials Summit panel and the Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, the NFHS staff and leadership will distribute and convey a strong and articulate message to all stakeholders by a variety of media and other communication platforms, including symposiums, webinars, educational videos, printed materials, media campaigns and social media.
The message is one that should resonate with everyone as the new standard in providing student-athletes with the best opportunity to stay in the game, perform their best, and reach their own highest levels of athletic and personal achievement with competence, confidence and high character. Indeed, the Essentials Initiative is designed to support the NFHS in fulfilling its Vision and Mission.
Michael F. Bergeron, Ph.D., FACSM, is an applied physiologist and CEO and President of Youth Sports of the Americas, co-chair of the 2016 NFHS Essentials Summit, and a former member of the NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC). Michael C. Koester, M.D., is a sports medicine physician with the Slocum Center for Orthopedics & Sports Medicine, co-chair of the 2016 NFHS Essentials Summit, and
the current chair of the NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC).