Sports—especially football—seem to dominate the news these days, but not always for on‑field activities. Concussions are grabbing headlines, and parents and student athletes are finding it difficult not to be apprehensive—especially when NFL players themselves are walking away from lucrative careers because of their concerns about injuries that could result in permanent damage.
Mt. Lebanon Athletic Director John Grogan acknowledges that the awareness of concussions in sports has become much higher since he started in the job 15 years ago. “That seems to be the hot topic when you talk about youth and high school sports, and even professional sports,” he says. “That’s something we’ve had to deal with at the high school level, and we do a lot of training and prevention.”
He outlined some of the programs implemented to help minimize injuries of any kind. ImPACT is a widely used computerized concussion evaluation system. Each Mt. Lebanon athlete is ImPACT-tested, beginning in seventh grade, and intermittently throughout their middle school and high school years, to make sure that data is correct and up to date. This allows trainers to better assess the severity of a concussion, should the student receive one.
In addition, this past year the school district hired a new strength and conditioning coach, Frank Cremonese. “His sole responsibility is to work with our head coaches to develop strengthening and conditioning programs that we hope are going to make us healthier and stronger from a competitive standpoint, and—even more importantly—will help to prevent the strains, pulls, etc., that you sometimes get in athletics,” Grogan says.
Cremonese, a health and phys ed teacher at Mt. Lebanon, has been the strength coach for football and wrestling for the past three years. In his expanded position, Cremonese designs the workouts and conditioning for every sport at the high school, and for 13-and-under lacrosse players who train with him.
“I’m trying to get the kids started at a younger age doing strength and conditioning—but doing it at the specific age group level, because that’s important. I make sure every kid is doing what they’re supposed to, based on what their development level is.”
Experience has taught Cremonese the importance of proper programs: “I’ve had six reconstructive surgeries because of poor technique and lifting procedures from when I started (playing sports) in ninth grade, until I was done playing college football,” he says. “I have 21 screws holding my knees, shoulders and elbows together, and I want to make sure kids don’t go through what I went through.”
Along with hiring a strength and conditioning coach, every member of the coaching staff is required to obtain certain certifications each year, and through the athletic department, they have access to contacts at UPMC who offer programs and workshops for coaches and parents alike.
“We’re very fortunate that our district has contracted through UPMC,” Grogan says, “and we have three full-time athletic trainers. We have trainers at all varsity contests and for all of our practices, and they’re here until the last practice is over.”
One of those trainers, Dan Stechly, started at Mt. Lebanon in 2003. Stechly at times works hand-in-hand with Cremonese, saying that if, as a trainer, he notices that an athlete has a flaw in his or her routine or isn’t executing something properly, he can approach the strength coach for assistance, like he did last year after watching the girls basketball team.
“I was watching their knees as they were landing and shooting, and thinking, ‘A lot of improvement can be made here,’” Stechly says. “I said to Frank, maybe we can strengthen certain muscles to help prevent ACL tears. Frank has been good and it always benefits the kids in the end. I’d rather do injury prevention than anything. “
So while Grogan believes that the school district is taking every precaution, he realizes that injuries can still happen. But rather than focus on those, he prefers to emphasize the positive results of students’ participation in sports.
“The kids learn so many life lessons from participating in sports, it far outweighs the chances of them getting an injury, which they could get in their backyard.”
The benefits aren’t always as obvious as having the ability to throw a football 40 yards downfield or being able to sink a three-point jump shot, because being a good competitor requires more than just having athletic talent. Learning how to be part of a team, learning how to condition your body and learning time management skills are some of the benefits that come from playing sports.
“At Mt. Lebanon, we have a rigorous educational system, so the kids have to learn how to work through that and meet the demands of high-expectation athletic programs and high-expectation academic programs,” Grogan says. “I think the discipline and the time management needed to be both an athlete and a student here, helps them with that.”
In sports, just as in most extracurricular activities, learning how to communicate with people, learning how to deal with successes and failures is all part of the process. So is teamwork.
“You may not be best friends with everybody on the team, but on game night, everyone has to come together and do his best. Everyone works together. And the relationships the athletes build with their teammates, their coaches, the people surrounding the program—those are things you can’t measure. You form a different kind of bond with teammates you’re spending time with and going out to compete with.”
Aside from possible injuries, Grogan faces the issue of students playing more than one sport. While some athletes and parents believe kids should specialize in one that they’d like to pursue in college, Grogan sees the other side. “For a number of years we’ve been encouraging kids to play multiple sports for a lot of reasons,” he says. “I think it’s good for them—I think there’s too much specialization.”
Now, with clubs and outside programs, it’s much easier than it used to be to play one sport year-round.
“I think there’s often pressure from outside coaches or parents, or expectations from the community, that if you’re not playing a sport year-round you’re not going to play at the varsity level,” says Grogan. “We try hard to change that opinion, because we want kids to play multiple sports.”
With an enrollment of 1,701, Mt. Lebanon plays schools like North Allegheny and Seneca Valley, both of which have more than 2,100 students enrolled.
“We need to find ways to compete with that, and one of the better ways is to have our best athletes play multiple sports,” Grogan says. “Some of our best athletes are playing multiple sports and contributing in a big way.”
While most kids won’t go on to play sports in college, what they learn in high school will often continue with them throughout their lives. Cremonese has seen evidence of that, from kids who never entered a weight room, now coming in to exercise. “To see anywhere from literally 300 to 500 kids come in in the four to five hours after school and be excited to exercise—that makes my day. They might not play lacrosse after high school, but they enjoy the exercise portion, the lifting, the running, things like that. Even when their season is over they are coming back to work out. They’re getting used to the idea of doing that for a lifetime. If nothing else, it’s injury prevention, learning about doing the right thing, and doing the appropriate exercise. These are things I do now even though I don’t play any more.”
So despite the potential risks of injuries or concussions, Grogan believes the positives about sports outweigh the negative. “The vast majority of these kids aren’t going on to play in college. This will be their last athletic team experience, and we want it to be positive for them, we want them to have fun.
“Our kids gain so many things in athletics they may not learn in other aspects of school, that they will use for the rest of their lives and will be an advantage to them.”