The glory days of high school sports are no longer reserved for dream team athletes, as athletic directors are increasingly opening up sports to all students, regardless of ability, and seeing winning results on the field and off.
This push is reflected in the most recent National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) survey, which shows that in 2011-2012, participation in high school sports had grown for the 23rd consecutive year. The annual High School Athletics Participation Survey, which includes the association’s 51 member states and the District of Columbia, shows an all-time high participation of 7.7 million students, more than 55 percent of enrolled high schoolers. This is up nearly 14 percent from 2001-2002.
Much of the increase is attributed to more female athletes, particularly in basketball and track and field, but athletic directors say the popularity of school sports goes beyond Title IX and the move to give female athletes the same opportunities as their male counterparts. The trend also reflects increased participation by students at different levels, such as clubs or managing and documenting athletic events.
The growth in athletic involvement, whether on varsity teams or behind the scenes of a club sport, helps youngsters learn about teamwork, collaboration, and solving problems, all important 21st-century skills, says Chris Bigelow, director of student services for the Northshore School District in Bothell, Wash. Some 2,150 Northshore students, or 48 percent of the district’s high school enrollment, participate in sports. And parents and administrators agree there are many benefits of involving more students.
“Parents have recognized there is a positive correlation between high school activities and academic outcomes of students who participate in sports, and school leaders recognize sports are no longer considered a distraction from academics but rather an extension of good educational programs,” Bigelow says. “Athletics creates an atmosphere of pride and teaches each participant the importance of attitude, confidence, character, knowledge, and goal setting,” he adds.
Off the Field Advantages
And various studies show that students who just participate in high school athletics—whether as videographer, manager, star quarterback or backup to the goalie—have higher grades, better attendance, lower dropout rates, and fewer discipline problems than their peers.
In the study “Comparing the Academic Performance of High School Athletes and Non-Athletes in Kansas in 2008- 2009,” Angela Lumpkin of University of Kansas and Judy Favor of Baker University found 80 percent of athletes who reported their GPAs on the ACT questionnaire reported a 3.0 or higher, compared to 71 percent of non athletes. Graduation rates for athletes were also found to be higher: 98 percent of athletes graduated, compared to 88 percent of non-athletes.
Open Enrollment Drawbacks
Opening athletics to all involves more than instituting no-cut policies for all sports; it requires creativity in the athletic program. A major constraint involves facilities, according to Don Parker, assistant principal for activities and athletics and athletic director for Rich Central High School in Olympia Fields, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. “We just don’t have the facilities to run intramural sports programs like we desire,” Parker says. “We only have a main gym and an alternative gym. Some schools have nice fieldhouses to run big programs. We’re kind of locked in terms of facilities.”
Nevertheless, Rich Central, which is part of Rich Township High School District 227, offers its 1,500 students varsity, JV, freshman and sophomore programs in football, basketball, wrestling, track and cross country, soccer, bowling, volleyball, cheer, tennis, and golf. With that selection, about a third of the students participate in major sports. And recent renovations to some of the school’s sports facilities have improved access for more students, Parker adds.
While Parker acknowledges that playing the best athletes leads to more competitive teams and more school spirit, he recognizes there’s also a place for lesser skilled students, if logistical concerns can be conquered. “We want students to be involved because we know it’s good for them,” Parker says. “It gives them opportunities to go to college on scholarship, it’s good for their health and for social, emotional purposes, and it’s good to represent your school in a positive way.”
The district has enough equipment and uniforms for football, so students who want to play football can join the team and practice with the team, “but they might not get as much playing time as the starters,” Parker adds. The same goes with wrestling and track.
Another option is team manager, which is more than running a clock or filling water bottles. “Not every kid wants to play on a team, but they might want to be part of the team,” says Michael Laneve, assistant principal for athletics and activities and athletic director forRich East High School in Park Forest, Ill. Team managers learn in part how to be a business manager by scheduling teams, and others help trainers by preparing the training room and fields with supplies so trainers can focus on rehabbing and taping athletes, he says.
This spring, Laneve says, students are to videotape games, do color commentary and post videos to the school website, which will be designed and updated by other students, some of whom will write game stories. “What starts out as a kid joining a team is now mushrooming into fine arts, journalism, and web design,” Laneve says. “You don’t know how important these support kids are to coaches to get things done. We can’t do it all. We’re stretched too thin, and these kids learn really quick.”
The NFHS attributes much of the rise in high school sports participation to girls, whose opportunities have increased thanks to the 1972 legislation known as Title IX. Female participation in sports in 2011-2012 increased by 33,984 over the prior year to a record 3.2 million.
The 2011-2012 school year also reflected the 23rd consecutive increase of girls participating in high school sports. Outdoor track and field, basketball, and volleyball continued to be the top three participatory sports for girls, whereas football, outdoor track and field, and basketball were tops for boys.
And in January, the U.S. Department of Education’s Offce for Civil Rights clarified schools’ legal obligations related to involving students with disabilities in school sports and clubs. Students with disabilities would not be guaranteed aspot on teams, but similar to Title IX, they must have similar opportunities as their typical peers.
At Park City High School in Utah, that’s old news, says Park City Athletic Director Doug Payne. “In wrestling, we have a guy who has an IEP (individualized educational program). He’s just slow in processing, but wrestling to him is his life,” Payne explains. “He’s integral to the team and is a motivational asset.”
At Park City, athletics are truly open to all, Payne adds. “We encourage everyone to participate. They can run track, bepart of a team,” he says. “They can have fun and start to improve and maintain their bodies and health.
”Park City has many club sports in addition to freshman, junior varsity, and varsity teams in sports such as soccer, basketball, baseball, track and golf. And the school recently added club level lacrosse and water polo in response to high student interest.
“It’s definitely good to open up athletics to everyone,” Payne says. “Our philosophy is to involve students to have fun, build leadership, learn teamwork. You’ve got people you know and don’t know, like and don’t like, and you all work together for a common goal.”
“There are so many challenges in society: obesity, fitness, we want to create great citizens,” says Rich Township High School District’s Laneve. “You need to identify students who want to be involved, regardless of skill level, and provide them an opportunity to be involved.”
Sometimes the challenge to greater athletic involvement is more financial. Rich Central cut gymnastics two years ago because it was too expensive for the small number of interested students. For lessexpensive sports, however, going coed can work. “We don’t have enough girls for a girls wrestling team, so they wrestle with the boys,” Bigelow says, adding that at state meets there are more female opponents, though not necessarily in the same weight class as Northshore’s girls.
However, Jim Thornton, president of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, which represents 35,000 certified athletic trainers, says that coed teams present safety concerns in some sports. With wrestling, even though the weight may be the same, boys typically carry more muscle tissue and have an advantage strength-wise.
“Girls playing football have a higher injury risk because men can generate more force,” Thornton says. “We have to use our heads in regards to safety, particularly when it comes to contact or collision sports.”
Involving more students in athletics while also keeping everyone as safe as possible doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive, he adds. “We come at it from an injury prevention standpoint, but the NATA is very much aware of the healthy lifestyle that participating in sports promotes,” Thornton says. “For the lesserprepared athletes, an athletic trainer can help them improve flexibility and strength issues to prevent injuries.”
And most times, the benefits of being involved outweigh the risks. “Sportsmanship, self-discipline, and perseverance are often learned through interscholastic sports,” Bigelow says. “Athletics assist in the development of positive relationships, good will, selfrealization, all-around growth and good citizenship qualities,” Bigelow adds. “Students learn lessons in teamwork, competition and how to win and lose gracefully, and those factors apply to life.”
Regina Whitmer is a contributing writer to District Administration.