Apr 30

The Age of Single-Sport Athletes Endures Despite Detractors’ Suspicions

APRIL 30, 2016


 Harrison Heffley, an Arkansas athlete, is one of a shrinking number of high school students who play multiple sports. Credit Kurt Voigt/Associated Press

Harrison Heffley, an Arkansas athlete, is one of a shrinking number of high school students who play multiple sports. Credit Kurt Voigt/Associated Press

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Harrison Heffley played nearly every sport that caught his interest during junior high and high school, from his dominant trade of baseball to basketball, football and even golf.

Over the years, Heffley, a senior from nearby Rogers, Ark., has seen and felt pressure from coaches for athletes to take part in year-round, single-sport training just to earn playing time at the varsity level. He has watched friends and opponents train outside school and hit the road with their travel teams, chewing up weekends for months at a time.

A hard-throwing left-handed pitcher, Heffley wasn’t immune to this kind of effort, either, scheduling baseball workouts each week while playing other sports and often throwing late into the night at his school’s indoor facility.

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

“Doing this and not doing the 50-games-a-summer thing as a kid definitely helped me not burn out,” said Heffley, who has signed to play baseball at Arkansas. “I can tell when I play with some other people that my love for the sport is fresh and still growing.”

Heffley is an anomaly in a world obsessed with sports specialization, where academies charge tens of thousands of dollars in annual tuition to help children get better at football, basketball, soccer and more. That gives athletes a better shot at a college scholarship, the thinking goes, and most agree that the multisport high school athlete is becoming a thing of the past.

It is a trend that has come under particular scrutiny over the last year.

Notable figures including the Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer, the golfer Jordan Spieth, members of the United States women’s national soccer team and the baseball Hall of Famer John Smoltz are among those who have publicly criticized year-round specialization, primarily for its suspected role in injuries, but for other reasons, too, including pressure and burnout.
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After working at a high school with 600 students in Las Vegas, Larry Chavez was taken aback when he became the athletic director at 2,400-student Cleveland High in Rio Rancho, N.M. 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.

 The top golfer Jordan Spieth has criticized early specialization. Credit Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

The top golfer Jordan Spieth has criticized early specialization. Credit Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

To curb the trend toward specialization, Chavez enacted an incentive-based program for multisport athletes. Beginning in 2014, freshmen and sophomores who participated in multiple sports received T-shirts marking their achievement. Juniors earned a multisport patch for their letter jackets, while seniors received a watch.

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

“I just feel that with kids, they only have one chance in high school; they only have three or four years of high school experience,” Chavez said. “And by them being forced, by either high school coaches, parents or club coaches, to specialize so early, I think it’s hindering their development, and I think that’s why there’s such a high rate of burnout for our kids.”

Despite the program’s success, this year’s multiple-sport participants at Cleveland High give a glimpse of what many believe is a national trend. While 85 freshmen are enrolled in the multisport program, the number dips to 62 sophomores, 45 juniors and only 27 seniors.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association has created a task force to come up with practical methods of increasing multisport participation. Jack Roberts, the executive director, said he hoped the task force showed that the issue of specialization was a “public health crisis.”

“If that’s the case, then we have to adopt policies and procedures that intend 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 club-sport cousins.

“We have to define what success means in school sports,” he said. “It might be different in all other levels by all other sponsors, and we’ve got to keep beating that drum to at least try to neutralize all those other messages that parents and kids and coaches are getting.”

The notion that specialization is a health crisis has drawn the biggest headlines. Last summer, Smoltz became the first pitcher who had had Tommy John surgery to enter the Baseball Hall of Fame. In his speech, he said children were “maxing out too hard, too early” and should simply “be athletic and play other sports.”

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

According to the preliminary findings, highly specialized athletes were more likely to report a history of knee or hip injuries blamed on overuse; participating in a single sport for more than eight months per year appeared to be an important factor in increased injury risk.

The study tracked the participation patterns of and injuries to more than 1,000 athletes at 27 high schools across Wisconsin, including club and school sports. The early results found the greatest instances of specialization in soccer, volleyball and basketball, and found that female athletes (39 percent) were more likely to specialize than male athletes (25 percent).

But it was the injury data that surprised McGuine, with 49 percent of specialized athletes sustaining an injury compared with only 23 percent of multisport athletes.

The numbers did not differ much for athletes who specialized but tried to reduce their risk by limiting the number of games they played. In those “low-volume kids,” as McGuine called them, 46 percent of the specialized athletes sustained injuries compared with 20 percent of multisport athletes.

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

“Specialization is the biggest predictor of a previous lower-extremity injury in these high school kids,” said McGuine, who presented his findings in January at a meeting of the Pediatric Research in Sports Medicine Society with members of the National Federation of State High School Associations in attendance.

The specialization study is not the only one being followed by McGuine, who is also tracking the effectiveness of headgear in reducing concussions among high school soccer players.

However, it is one he hopes to expand in the future, giving parents, coaches and athletes a better frame of reference when deciding whether to specialize at a young age. McGuine knows the issue well, having watched his three children each choose to take part in multiple sports throughout high school, where things have become hyper-competitive.

Specialization “is not about getting a college scholarship anymore,” he said, adding: “It’s about just getting playing time at their high school with their peers now. That’s the way we’ve made it, and it’s a real shame.”