Risk In Sports

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Sydney Williams May 21, 2021 Founders Corner

More Than Injury

People almost always equate risk in sports with injury. It makes sense. Injuries epitomize negative outcomes. You can easily track, price and analyze them. The CDC and NCAA, for example, keep careful records. Insurance actuaries apply models to estimate probability and expected cost.

With injury data becoming more prolific, insurers now offer more protection. Teams and organizations are buying.

At one Connecticut school district, the school board pays nearly 40% of insurance premiums toward covering interscholastic sports (mostly for the high school). Property and general liability policies account for the other 60% and cover multiple campuses (not just the high school).

Five years earlier it paid just 11% on sports, even though student body size, number of students playing sports, and the mix and number of sports were constant.

To be sure, injury frequency and distribution beyond football and concussions might surprise most people.

A highly regarded orthopedic surgeon in South Carolina, for example, informed us that, in torn ACLs across all sports, he mends 10 high school girls for every boy. In 2016, a study placed boys and girls basketball, which has the third-highest total participation after track and field and football, at the top of the injury leaderboard in total number.

But is risk just about physical impairment?

“You Gotta Be In It To Win It”

Let’s first consider what risk is. As the adage goes, you gotta be in it to win it. Risk is all about the being-in-it part. A coach and athlete come together to train and compete as a team. Different people oversee and support this interaction.

Every decision and every action that go into a season include some form of risk, or likelihood of a negative outcome. To get more from his athlete, a coach might communicate in a certain way or decide on a particular training plan. A supervisor might engage or disengage depending on what type of information she has.

How people assess situations affects degrees of risk. A coach might ignore opportunities to emphasize technique, or misinterpret fatigue levels. A supervisor might judge circumstances abruptly or only after something negative has happened.

What about non-physical injury?

Someone could say the wrong words or act inappropriately. Sexual misconduct comes immediately to mind. As with USA Gymnastics, many times the smoking gun appears in physical contact.

Psychological injury, however, doesn’t have to be sexual. It can occur subtly and gradually. Coaches and supervisors could simply press the wrong buttons in small ways. All too quickly, people begin to characterize a program as “mediocre” or, worse, “dysfunctional.”

Transparent Interaction

Expert at assigning value to most forms of risk, insurance actuaries aren’t so good at forecasting reputation damage.

What if a team were to eliminate injuries altogether? Does this eliminate risk? Not possible. There remain big questions of how people expect the team to perform and what each person wants to gain from the experience.

It would be fabulous if a team were to go an entire season without someone getting hurt and under perfectly aligned expectations. Maybe that happens once or twice in a coach’s career. It would be rarer still for an athletic director to experience this across all of her teams in any season.

Our best approach, therefore, is to mitigate potential harm in a way that maximizes performance. Your best opportunity at doing this is to put everyone on the same page and create feedback loops that spotlight interaction.

Think about it. If coach-athlete interaction were more transparent, would injury frequency increase or decrease? Would the cost of insurance continue to escalate?

Take that Connecticut school district. The amount it pays for property insurance declined 1.5% each year on average over the five years. General liability insurance, a much smaller number, dropped 10%. Athletic insurance? It skyrocketed 34%.

We built Stride to address risk. Stride aligns expectations and empowers feedback loops.

Sydney is Stride’s Founder.