It’s the day before the third league game of the season. The athletes are frustrated as they have lost two close games and the next game is against the school rival. The coach sees the team has not realized its full potential and decides to put the players through a solid, high-performance, two-hour practice; however, it is not enough.
The coach decides to keep the team past the scheduled practice time and, 15 minutes later, the star player calls out to the coach about nagging pain that could later be diagnosed as tendonitis, a pulled muscle or even a stress fracture. Immediately, the coach realizes the injury needs treatment, but the question arises – was this injury preventable?
Unfortunately, this type of scenario occurs too many times in high school athletics. When faced with such circumstances, coaches and school leaders are left to reflect on whether they could have done something different.
One factor that should not be overlooked is evaluating the length of practices. Whether it’s limiting the number of pitches a baseball or softball player can throw in a day, limiting the number of tackles a football player can make in a day or week, or even limiting the number of minutes a student can participate in any number of activities, school leaders are charged with creating environments in which the risk of overuse injuries is minimized.
Limiting Contact in Football
While this article addresses high school sports in general, it is important to note that state associations began adopting specific recommendations for limiting full contact in football in 2015 following suggestions from the NFHS Concussion Task Force in 2014.
The task force recommended that full-contact practice be limited to two to three practices per week, and only 60-90 minutes in that week. It also urged states to consider restricting full-contact on consecutive days and to only one session of two-a-day practices.
Data from the National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance Study indicates that these measures, along with other protocols, have been effective in reducing the number of concussions. In the nine sports measured by the survey, the overall number of concussions in 2020-21 dropped for the sixth consecutive year.
Explore Implementing Practice Limits
So, there is reason to believe that limitations could be effective in other sports. While limiting practice times may not be a popular subject for most school communities, school leaders can promote safe habits by explaining how such a limitation may increase student safety. Just as students need to acclimatize to physical exertion during tryout periods, coaches need to be vigilant to minimize the risk of overuse injuries that can occur when practices run longer or are poorly planned. One way to combat such overuse would be to create a school or cocurricular activity maximum practice time limit, assuming there are not already established limits by the state high school association.
To develop such guidance, school leaders can create a team of school representatives. Various members of the school community can meet to discuss the perceived effects of such a rule. All representative stakeholders should have a voice in such rule creation. School personnel including students, coaches, athletic trainers and even parents can and should share their perspectives in order to determine appropriate minimum and maximum practice times. It is in this collaborative way that schools create successful buy-in and adoption from their communities.
When exploring practice time limits, and if there is no directive from the state association, communities may also want to define practice limits by both day and week for better protection from overuse injuries. A school may have a maximum amount of practice that students can participate in a day that cumulatively adds to a weekly total that cannot be exceeded. For example, if a school has a daily three-hour practice limit, it may also have a 15-hour maximum weekly limit that should not be exceeded.
Defining Practice and Practice Time Limits
In creating practice limitations, it’s also important to create common definitions of what constitutes a practice. Physical activity might be the obvious definition of athletic practice, but different schools may also want to weigh time spent doing video analysis, conducting informational strategy meetings or other team functions. In addition, schools may want to create a common understanding of how much time a game or contest would count if it were translated to a practice time. For instance, a school may decide that a game or contest counts as two hours toward a weekly or daily practice time limit.
Another possible area would be to explore opportunities and limitations of multiple single-sport practices within one day, sometimes known as double days. In these types of situations, schools may want to explore how long practices should be and how long a rest in between practices needs to be mandated for same day practices.
Creating uniform maximum practice time guidelines applicable to all athletic teams can empower school leaders and coaches to create the safest athletic environment possible while recognizing the balance students need to experience in their high school lives.
The Multisport Athlete and Practice Limitations
In examining practice limitations, school leaders need to encourage coaches to be open to allowing multi-sport athletes to have flexibility during common seasons. For example, a school may find it has a student who wants to run track and participate in softball simultaneously during the same season. This may create situations where coaches have to work together to set appropriate practice times for these unique students so they do not exceed practice time mandates.
To further clarify, if a school has a three-hour daily maximum practice time limitation, coaches could divide the athlete practice time so the student can be on both teams. Assuming the coaches both schedule two-hour practices, the multisport athlete would attend 90 minutes of each practice or whatever division of three hours the coaches agreed upon.
What is key to the success of practice limits and the multisport athlete is the need for effective coach communication between programs and understanding that the support of the school leaders will be present if needed.
Athletes are Students, Too
Another important facet of practice limitations is to understand that high school athletes need to have time to be academic students. Student-athletes push themselves to be the best they can be in everything. Encouraging students to seek greatness is important, but adult leaders also need to explain to students that practice limitations are designed so students can be great both athletically and academically.
Setting a practice time limit encourages students to engage in healthy academic habits. In addition, setting practice time limits can also help alleviate student anxiety as they can have a better understanding of their commitments to the athletic program, teammates, and their academic coursework they must maintain in order participate in athletics.
Not all athletes will face issues related to overuse injuries from lengthy practices, but these injuries do occur far too frequently. Adult leaders, with a collaborative vision that includes the school community, can create guidelines and promote best practices to minimize the chances that students will face overuse injuries.
Furthermore, setting maximum practice time limits for students frees coaches to promote academic growth and gives students the opportunity to focus on their coursework. When high school athletics focuses on maximizing the potential of students both athletically and academically, the students experience a stable foundation that can propel them to experience success long after they complete their athletic seasons and maintain healthy and safe habits.
Dr. Steve Amaro, CMAA, is an assistant principal at Freedom High School in Oakley, California. He previously was an English content coach, athletic director and tennis coach at the school. He is a member of the High School Today Publications Committee.