The era of single-sport athletes lives on despite the suspicions of detractors

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Harrison Heffley played nearly every sport that sparked his interest in middle school and high school, from his dominating trade of baseball to basketball, football, and even golf.

Over the years, Heffley, a senior from nearby Rogers, Ark., has seen and felt the pressure from coaches to have athletes participate in year-round single-sport training just to save playing time at the college level. . He’s seen friends and opponents training outside of school and hitting the road with their traveling teams, chewing up weekends for months at a time.

A left-handed pitcher with hard throws, Heffley was also not immune to this kind of exertion, scheduling baseball practices every week while playing other sports and often pitching late at night at the indoor facilities of his school.

Luckily for Heffley, the message he received from his father was always to have fun and play as many sports as possible.

“Doing that and not doing the 50 games a summer thing when I was a kid definitely helped me not burn out,” said Heffley, who signed to play baseball in Arkansas. “I can tell when I play with other people that my love for the sport is fresh and continues to grow.”

Heffley is an anomaly in a world obsessed with sports specialization, where academies charge tens of thousands of dollars in annual tuition to help kids get better at soccer, basketball, soccer and more. This gives athletes a better chance of getting a college scholarship, it is thought, and most agree that the high school multi-sport athlete is becoming a thing of the past.

This is a trend that has received significant attention over the past year.

The likes of Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer, golfer Jordan Spieth, members of the United States Women’s National Soccer Team and Baseball Hall of Famer John Smoltz make part of those who have publicly criticized the specialization throughout the year, mainly for its alleged role. in injuries, but also for other reasons, including pressure and burnout.

After working at a high school with 600 students in Las Vegas, Larry Chavez was surprised when he became athletic director of 2,400 Cleveland High students in Rio Rancho, NM There he saw volleyball teams with 12 to 14 freshmen and as few as three seniors and soccer players so tired of the year-round approach that they decided as seniors to try something else.

To curb the trend towards specialization, Chavez adopted an incentive program for multi-sport athletes. Beginning in 2014, freshmen and sophomores who competed in multiple sports received t-shirts marking their achievement. Juniors received a multisport crest for their lettered jackets, while seniors received a watch.

The program cost the school $3,000 to $4,000, and Chavez said it was met with enthusiastic support from students.

“I just feel like with kids, they only get one chance in high school; they only have three or four years of high school experience,” Chavez said. “And because they’re forced, either by high school coaches, parents or club coaches, to specialize so early, I think that hinders their development, and I think that’s why there’s a burnout rates so high among our children.”

Despite the success of the program, participants in several sports this year at Cleveland High provide insight into what many see as a national trend. While 85 freshmen are enrolled in the multi-sport program, the number drops to 62 sophomores, 45 juniors and just 27 seniors.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association has established a task force to provide practical methods for increasing multisport participation. Jack Roberts, the executive director, said he hoped the task force would show the issue of specialization was a “public health crisis”.

“If that’s the case, we need to adopt policies and procedures to reduce those pressures and protect young people,” Roberts said, aiming to do so by distinguishing the goals of school sports from those of their cousins. club sports.

“We need to define what success in school sports means,” he said. “It could be different on every other level by all the other sponsors, and we have to keep beating that drum to at least try to neutralize all those other messages that parents, kids and coaches are getting.”

The idea that specialization is a health crisis has made headlines. Last summer, Smoltz became the first Tommy John-operated pitcher to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In his speech, he said the kids were “wearing themselves out too hard, too soon” and should just “be athletic and play other sports”.

Research assessing whether sports specialization leads to more injuries is not common, but this year Timothy McGuine and his colleagues from the Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation at the University of Wisconsin published research suggesting there is a link. .

According to preliminary results, highly skilled athletes were more likely to report a history of knee or hip injuries attributed to overuse; practicing the same sport for more than eight months per year seems to be an important factor in increasing the risk of injury.

The study tracked the participation and injury patterns of more than 1,000 athletes at 27 Wisconsin high schools, including club and school sports. Early results revealed the greatest instances of specialization in football, volleyball and basketball, and revealed that female athletes (39%) were more likely to specialize than male athletes (25%) .

But it was the injury data that surprised McGuine, with 49% of specialty athletes sustaining an injury compared to just 23% of multisport athletes.

The numbers didn’t differ much for athletes who specialized but tried to reduce their risk by limiting the number of matches they played. Among these “low-volume kids,” as McGuine called them, 46% of specialty athletes suffered injuries, compared to 20% of multisport athletes.

Even high-volume multisport athletes, some who played more than 100 games per year, reported 15% fewer injuries than their low-volume specialty counterparts.

“Specialization is the strongest predictor of anterior lower extremity injury in these high school students,” said McGuine, who presented her findings in January at a Pediatric Research in Sports Medicine Society meeting with members of the National Federation of State High Schools. Associations present.

The specialization study isn’t the only one McGuine is tracking, which is also tracking the effectiveness of headgear in reducing concussions in high school football players.

However, it is one he hopes to develop in the future, giving parents, coaches and athletes a better frame of reference for deciding whether to specialize at a young age. McGuine knows the problem well, having watched her three children each choose to participate in multiple sports throughout high school, where things got hyper-competitive.

Specialization “isn’t about getting a college scholarship anymore,” he said, adding, “It’s just about spending time playing their high school with their peers now. That’s how we do it. we did, and it’s really a shame.

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