A debate in the Delaware high school sports community is raging on whether coaches should be allowed to coach their athletes year-round, and the state's athletic trainers say they're against the proposal.
Under current Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association rules, teams are limited to practicing during their in-season period.
For example, fall sports practices began this year on August 15, with their season ending at the end of the regular season, or when a team was eliminated from the DIAA state tournament.
At that point, coaches are prohibited from coaching any member of their team, in that sport, until the end of the school year.
The DIAA Board of Directors is looking at several changes to that rule, including going as far as allowing coaches time each week to work with their teams out of season, with the exception of the preseason time of the other season's sports. They're also considering limiting that extra time to summer, but in all cases, doing it with no additional pay for the coach.
Some parents and coaches have argued that would allow athletes to gain better skills in a specific sport, opening up their opportunity to play at a higher level, potentially earning athletic scholarship money for college.
While focusing on improvement might seem completely logical, there's at least one major group looking to stop, or at least slow down, the movement.
Delaware Athletic Trainers' Association President Mandy Minutola, who served as Ursuline's A.T. before taking a position with Premier Physical Therapy, said there are multiple factors that should go into any decision.
"The biggest reason is the health and safety of our athletes, which is all that we're about as athletic trainers and an organization. There's been a lot of research out that sport specialization, meaning you pick one sport and that's all you do, has very negative effects on the health of an athlete, mentally, physically, and overuse. You'll hear professional athletes talking about being a multi-sport athlete, that they played football, basketball, soccer, whatever. our fear is that these changes would promote sport specialization, meaning there would be pressure now. If you're a multi-sport athlete and your main sports is soccer but you play two others, you can now do out of season sessions, these kids will feel pressure from that No. 1 sport, that may interfere with their other sport and cause them to quit. It would lead them to specialize, which is what all the research is against."
According to the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine, there has been a five-fold increase in serious shoulder and elbow injuries and baseball and softball players since 2000. Minutola said that can be linked to specialization, including clubs in sports like volleyball and basketball, plus additional baseball leagues.
"Overuse injuries are huge. We already as athletic trainers are dealing with athletes already doing in-season high school sports and then club and travel sports. They're not getting adequate rest. They're doing way too much, they have multiple practices in a day, or multiple games on a weekend, as opposed to only doing your high school sport. Now add in the off-season coaching that might be coming, that could be the 3rd or 4th practice session they're going to in a day or a week, and that could lead to even more overuse injuries, because they're not getting enough rest as it is."
Along with the physical toll, there can be a mental one as well.
Elena Delle Donne famously cited burnout as part of the reason she gave up basketball for a year after deciding to not attend the University of Connecticut, before eventually picking up the sport again after a year of playing volleyball at Delaware.
"Doing one sport and focusing on that, and only doing that, and doing the same motions over and over and over and over without a change or rest, is where we're seeing the negative effects on kids," Minutola pointed out. "Also, with sport specialization, I agree if you want to be a pitcher, you want to focus on that, but mentally, when you are focused on one sport, and you put all the pressures on yourself, there are negative mental effects. Burnout is huge in athletes. If you're doing the same repetitive thing, you have to change it up. There's a ton of research going on about how sport specialization has negative effects on the body."
Some allowances are being put in place. The Delaware Interscholastic Football Coaches Association has proposed being allowed an extra week during the year to work specifically on a nationally-recognized plan to help create safer tackling. Right now they're typically being taught on the first few days of training camp in August, but Minutola said you've got to tread carefully.
"There are obviously benefits, to a degree, to be able to have out-of-season skill time. Working on proper tackling, like the Heads-Up Football Camp. We definitely understand the benefit of them, but to us, the risk of overuse injuries and the negative affect on their health, safety, and well-being is not worth that."
Another concern DATA says they have is in regards to costs. To help ease the financial burden on schools, the current proposal in front of DIAA is that coaches would have the option of taking on the extra coaching responsibilities, but they'd have to do so without being paid any extra.
While that's a decision a coach would have to make, the athletic trainers point out that they would also be asked to have more on their plate.
"Are we going to be required to cover these out-of-season sessions, which most likely will be after 5:30, because that's when the normal in-season sports practice? Are we going to have longer hours now? Are we going to be compensated for these practices, or will we just be expected to cover them? A lot of athletic trainers in the state are 10-month employees, so they have the summers off. If summer is a free-for-all, do the athletic trainers have to work throughout the summer? It's going to be an increased workload for us as athletic trainers, and that in turn, if we're going to cover them, and get paid for them, that's going to be an increased cost to the school. They talk about how there's not going to be any increased costs, well there definitely could be."
Minutola said she'd like to see more detail on what the DIAA has in mind, and while limiting the extra coaching to summer may not be a complete victory for DATA, she said it's a compromise to a year-round plan.
"Right now what is proposed is way too open, and a free-for-all. They can do whatever they want at any time of the year besides the 1 or 2 weeks of preseason. As an organization, we propose the summer stuff, we understand it, it makes sense. Lets do 3 weeks in the summer, with some kind of time frame of here's where you're allowed to do it and it's not just whenever you want, however long you want. We're more for compromising over the summer, as opposed to during the school year. We think that any of the extra practices, sessions, and pressure [are too much]. I just asked my student athletic trainer, how do these kids have the time to do their homework with all that they're doing? So let's add more."
The DIAA Board of Directors is scheduled to meet on Thursday morning in Dover on the Heads-Up proposal, where one of their agenda iteams is a receiving of public comments on the issue.
"A majority of us, if not all of us, are very concerned about these proposed changes. There are a lot of school principals, athletic directors, pediatricians, medical professionals that have submitted comments against this. It would be a real shame if something can't be worked out with as many people and organizations being against this."
As for the thoughts of those who are for the plan, WDEL has received multiple complaints from coaches, especially in the volleyball and basketball communities, who say they struggle to compete with out-of-state opposition, notably early in seasons. They say they're playing catch-up to other states, like Pennsylvania, who already have extra coaching sessions in place.
Thursday's DIAA Board of Directors Meeting takes place at 9 a.m. at the John Collette Education Resource Center in Dover.