Athletic trainers at the center of phasing in high school athletics

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As Montgomery County athletes have returned to the practice fields, and Indiana High School athletics have entered the first phase of the return of sports for the first time since March, athletic trainers continue to play an important role in keeping athletes healthy and safe.

In the past athletic trainers roles have been to assist injured athletes both at the time of their injury and with their rehab of working back from an injury. Over the last several years, their duties have expanded to watching for signs of concussion, and monitoring the heat and severe weather during outdoor activities.

And now as high school sports look to return to competition during a pandemic, they are front and center in helping them do it safely.

During the first week of practices things looked much different than normal. Temperature checks, social distancing, and a mask requirement.

“A lot of requirements and restrictions and how do we start things?” Franciscan Sports Medicine Dr. Gregory Rowdon said. “All kind of came from a combination of several different sources.”

Rowdon and other leaders spearheaded a committee to develop the best guidance for the nearly 30 high schools with Franciscan Health athletic trainers on staff, including Crawfordsville’s Doug Horton, North Montgomery’s Isaac Hook, and Southmont’s Kim Chadd.

They took guidance from the department of education, local health departments, and a number of other entities in order to construct a cohesive plan.

Rowdon said they took the approach of dividing the re-entry plan up into phases, which put extreme limitations on the first phase to maximize safety.

“The first phase that we came up with is you can start off in small groups,” he said. “They’re called pods, where you can have a group of individuals working out that would stay together no matter what the workout is for that day. They would stay together so that if you would have somebody become positive in that pod, then you would limit that exposure to the rest of the team.”

After four months with no sports, the athletes were eager to return despite the restrictions.

“They seem to be happy just to participate and that’s the sell,” Chadd said. “In order to participate this is what we need to do. And we tried to get everybody on that same page so we don’t have any of that negativity.”

Chadd and her colleagues around the area screen athletes each day with questions such as ‘are you feeling well today? Have you had a known exposure to anyone with COVID-19? Do you have a loss of taste, loss of smell, or shortness of breath?’ 

During the first phase, no contact in any sport is allowed, no locker room use, and frequent sanitation of any shared ball.

“There’s a thousand and one little details that you don’t really think about until you go through what everybody has to go through to get a workout in,” Rowdon said.

On top of making sure all athletes and coaches practice social distancing and remain safe, athletic trainers must also keep in mind their primary role in helping prevent injuries, which is especially difficult as athletes get re-acclimated with workouts.

“I think that was my concern with the return was we’ve got to meet our kids where they are, we can’t try and catch up,” Chadd added. “That is what adds to injuries. We just have to start where they are and build them back up.”

As high school athletics across the state move toward the return of competition, there will be protocols in place to keep everyone safe, but the level of risk will continue to rise.

“Most of the illness at that age group, college and high school aged kids are minimal or totally symptom free,” Rowdon said. “The guidelines are in place so if somebody has an exposure and we test them and they are positive and they are symptom free then that person goes into isolation for 14 days.”

At that time other athletes that had been in contact with the athlete that tested positive would go into isolation as well.

“It could be devastating to a team if you don’t control it, which is why we are trying to maintain the six feet, and have mask requirements.”

It’s now not a matter of if high school athletics will return to competition, just a matter of when. But when they do, one thing is for certain — we will have athletic trainers to thank for it.

“To be honest, I don’t know how a high school could do it if they did not have a trainer there to monitor these issues,” Rowdon said.

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