Team Trends

High School Sports are Special

Growth in both genders is fueling the optimistic note for these specialty sports in high schools.
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While the major sports of football, baseball, softball and basketball continue to grab the most headlines and attention at high schools across America, participation is thriving in the so-called specialty sports in every corner of the country. Yes, while they used to be called the ‘minor” sports, soccer, lacrosse, volleyball, track and field and others (okay, wrestling, cheerleading and rugby, too) actually have higher levels of participation than the “majors.”

Take the “specialty” sport of wrestling, for example. According to Elliot Hopkins, the director of sports, sanctioning and student services at the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), wrestling has universal appeal to the 270,000 boys and girls that compete in high school wrestling.

“Wrestling is a rare ‘Come One, Come All’ type of sport,” Hopkins explains. “It is one of the few athletic endeavors that anyone can participate in and find success. You can be female, male, hearing and vision- impaired, have a physical challenge with missing limb(s) or cognitive issues and still compete for your school’s wrestling team. 

“Wrestling has a home for a lot of young people,” he adds. “You have at least 14 weight classifications to compete in for your school and community.”

In addition, Hopkins points out that girls’ wrestling is one of the fastest growing high school sports in the U.S.

“We can discern that fact from the increase of over 30 state associations sponsoring girls-only state wrestling championships,” he says. “The member state associations saw the need and opportunity to showcase successful young women in a traditional male sport and are having outstanding responses.”

The increase in participation in wrestling can be partially attributed to rules changes as well as how the uniforms are manufactured.  

“Some of our recent rule changes with eliminating the hair length rule and allowing two-piece uniforms in the sport have encouraged some of this growth,” says Hopkins.  

And, according to Hopkins, modern high school wrestling coaches are also playing a central role in the growth of wrestling.

“It really is the high school wrestling coaches who have been the best ambassadors and proponents of the sport,” he explains. “The high school coaches are going through the school talking the sport up with students and showing them a path to earn a varsity letter, an opportunity to get in great shape, become physically and emotionally stronger, be more self-reliant and finding a brother/sisterhood with their teammates. 

“Those are the reasons the sport is flourishing with young women as well,” he adds. “There is a sea of change with wrestling and we are optimistic that it equates to more participation by those who had a different expectation or understanding of the sport.”

Boys, Girls Are Playing All Sports

Growth in both genders is fueling the optimistic note for these specialty sports in high schools.

High school volleyball has traditionally been a sport for girls, but now boys are being given the chance to play as well and the response has been significant.

“Boys’ volleyball has seen tremendous growth over the last few years, with Indiana, Ohio and Utah state associations adding it as a sanctioned sport,” reports Lindsey Atkinson, director of sports for the NFHS. “We have also witnessed a growth in beach volleyball as Arizona, Florida and sections of California now sanction the sport for high school student-athletes.”

Girls’ lacrosse, too, remains on the upswing.

“From an anecdotal perspective, girls’ lacrosse continues to gain interest and momentum from many of our member state associations,” Atkinson says. “Each year we have sport administrators attending our lacrosse discussion forum at the NFHS Annual Summer Meeting expressing the growing interest in their state to add teams or sanction the sport.”

High school soccer is on solid ground in America and is even threatening to become its own version of a “major” sport as rules and equipment advances promote equal opportunities for all levels of play.

“High school soccer is in excellent shape,” reports Julie Cochran, director of sport for the NFHS. “The (soccer) rules committee continues to support the growth of the sport and ensure that all competitors are welcome in the sport while maintaining safety for all.”

It may not seem to be offer a major impact, but the rules committee hopes to simplify the rules for ease of use by coaches and officials across the nation. 

For example, over the years the soccer rules committee has received inquiries regarding handling. As Cochrane explains it, to help define what parts of the arm are considered in determining handling, the committee approved language to define the upper boundary of the arm as being in line with the armpit. Every little change that makes the sport more understandable and equitable goes a long way to promoting its growth.

• On that same note, the members of the NFHS track and field rules committee want track athletes to have a great time in the sport while remaining safe.

“The track and field rules committee continues to focus on providing consistency and guidance for meet referees and officials,” says Cochran. “Student-athlete health and safety and risk minimization remain an emphasis for the committee members.” 

One often overlooked but vital area of high school sports is the challenge of recruiting, training and retaining qualified officials in all sports, but especially in the specialty areas. Both Cochran and Atkinson agree this is a significant causse for concern for the sports of soccer, track and field, girls’ lacrosse and volleyball.

“Recruitment and retention of officials continues to be the biggest concern in sport at all levels,” says Cochran, who points out that the NFHS conducted an Officials Consortium early in 2022 with leaders from all levels of sport officiating in attendance and is establishing dates for NFHS Officiating Consortium 2.0 in 2023.

“Everyone must be involved in the changing of bad behavior in sports,” Cochrane says. “Students, coaches, administrators and parents must be involved in the changes of behavior at interscholastic events for a shift away from bad behavior.”

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