By Kellen O’Neill
In the past, the mark of a truly great athlete in high school is one who would letter in three or more sports. These people participated in these sports because they enjoyed them, not because they were pursuing a dream of continuing to play sports at higher levels. When not playing organized sports, instead of spending their free time with traveling teams they had pick up games at the local park. So when did playing one sport year round become normal, and why do athletes think this is a good idea?
Specialization is a term referring to an athlete or scholar devoting time to a single subject in order to be renowned for that one thing. However, this article is not about restaurants specializing in burgers or a graduate student specializing in a field of study, it is about high school athletes specializing in organized sports. Most of these students choose to specialize their talents because they think the only way to achieve elite status needed to attract collegiate attention is to participate in only their chosen sport. On the contrary, most studies on specialization show that this is simply not true. According to a survey by ESPN, nearly 70 percent of quarterbacks in the NFL played three or more sports in high school. Also only 6.5 percent of high school football players play in college and 0.8 percent play in the NFL so why would anyone choose to stick to one sport when in all likelihood this is their last chance to play in a official league? Hall of Fame NFL coach Bill Walsh agreed that specialization is not a good idea.
“The biggest mistake is to shut down everything else completely because you want to focus on being a quarterback. These kids think more is better,” Walsh said, “don’t mistake activity for productivity. More practice doesn’t always mean more success.”
Due to the rise in specialization in high school, the National Center For Biotechnical Research decided to conduct a survey on the effects it had on students. They came to the conclusion that, “Some degree of sports specialization is necessary to develop elite-level skill development. However, for most sports, such intense training in a single sport to the exclusion of others should be delayed until late adolescence to optimize success while minimizing injury, psychological stress, and burnout.”
High school sports are supposed to be fun so why are studies showing an increase in burnout and other physiological stress? Dr. Tim Kremchek, the Cincinnati Reds medical director and chief orthopaedic surgeon, has noticed this change in overuse and burnout over the last ten years, “It used to be kids couldn’t wait to play – now all of a sudden they can’t wait for it to be over. They want a break.” Despite all of these figures the number of single sport athletes at the high school level continue to rise, so there must be some reason for it, right? Who hasn’t heard the saying that if you put ten thousand hours into something that you are bound to be successful?
Some high schoolers are in between. Junior Thomas Nelson, who focuses on basketball, says that he doesn’t really care about the elite status, basketball is just his favorite sport. As an explanation on why he trains most of the year for a single sport Nelson responds, “I just don’t want to suck.” Other students, like senior Turner Trapkus, do want to play in higher levels at the sport they are specializing in, but that is not necessarily the only reason. “Track is the only sport I really care about,” Trapkus said. While Thomas as well as Turner play only one sport, they both seem to be motivated by the love of their sport rather than achieving elite status. But are students recommending others to specialize?
“If it is the sport that they love then yes, but if that is not what makes them happy, then no,” Trapkus said.
Another issue of specialization in high school sports is that certain sport programs are being denied great athletes that would normally participate in that sport. Especially in a school as small as Arcata High, students need to participate in every sport they can in order to remain strong in all of the sports programs. How is Arcata supposed to expect a great football program if nobody on the basketball team will play for them? Some schools may be renowned for a single sport but being a strong contender in all of the high school sports programs always looks better for a high school’s extracurricular reputation.
For better or for worse, the fact is that specialization in high school sports is on the rise. Pick-up games have transcended into off season workouts, and the three sport superstar has been replaced by the one sport elitist. Maybe it is just a passing trend, or maybe it is here to stay. Whatever the reason, specialization has become a reality of our time.