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South Valley Riverton Journal

Football teams see a decrease in participation

Sep 17, 2018 03:58PM ● By Jana Klopsch

Teams in the state of Utah have seen a 4 percent decrease in the number of participants. (Shelley Oliverson/WJ football)

By Greg James |  [email protected]           

High school football teams around the Salt Lake Valley are encountering a similar problem. The number of athletes participating in the sport is on the decline. 

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, Utah’s participation in tackle football has decreased by nearly 4 percent the past two seasons. Currently, 107 schools field teams; 8,944 boys and 16 girls are playing. 

“We are only down about 10–15 athletes, but nationally, the sport is experiencing a decrease in participation,” West Jordan head coach Mike Meifu said. “I think there are several things that are driving our numbers down.”

Player safety has become a concern among parents and participants alike, but it is not the only contributing factor.

“Our son got hurt,” West Jordan football booster Shelley Oliverson said. “He had a concussion, and his doctor told us to watch him and make sure he was ready to get back on the field before we let him. It made us wonder if it was worth it.” 

Teams track concussions by documenting the occurrence date, the players rehabilitation and their return to the game. Beyond that many teams have developed preventative programs. 

“We teach correct tackling and are diligent in protecting these kids,” Meifu said. “We have also worked on warm-up activities that are known to prevent injuries. We love our football family and do not want anything to happen to them.” 

Sport specialization has also become a contributing factor. Two years ago, Copper Hills High School coaches  reported only one athlete that participated in more than two high school sports. Certainly, there are things to gain by focusing on one sport—an offseason or perhaps a chance to play collegiately—but kids lose by specializing. 

Growing bodies can become overly stressed because of  repetition, which can lead to injuries. Playing multiple sports leads to better muscle, motor and skill development. It also promotes general athleticism, balance, speed and agility, according to a 2017 ESPN report. 

Kids who spend too much time on one sport risk tiring of the sport all together. Football friends will naturally be different than swimming friends and karate friends. Participating in multiple sports allows them to share experiences with different people and learn from different coaches, said the same ESPN report.

“At our school, we have kids that should be playing football,” Meifu said. “Some of it is the time and commitment. I have had kids tell me they are not playing because they cannot afford it. I try to help them and find ways to subsidize that.” 

Adults tend to point to student transfers as a possible decrease in participation. In the age of open enrollment an athlete can choose to attend a school that he feels has a program more suited to his needs as an athlete. This shifts participation from one school.

“Society has changed, and there are a number of things a kid can do to give them satisfaction,” Hunter High head coach Tarell Richards said. “Football pushes kids to physical limits, with no guarantee of success. We have kids that we don’t even get a chance to coach. They have taken their talents somewhere else.” 

Successful programs are encouraging their teams to work year round on becoming better. While the coaching staffs strive to build relationships with their players the year round participation and conditioning has improved. 

“A positive of all of this is that our sophomores and freshman are getting coached by our varsity staff,” Richards said. “They are learning our way of the game early in their high school career.” 

The best programs have coaches that make the sport fun, encourage positive relationships and have high expectations to assist the players to reach their potential.