Specializing in sports

Does it make sense to stick with just one sport?

Experts weigh the pros and cons; for many, playing different sports proves healthiest

By Karl Hedlund
Talon staff writer

Sophomore Eamonn Manion is quitting basketball this year.  Manion enjoyed the basketball season last year on the freshman team, he missed very few practices or games, and he put in a great amount of work  in the off season, but he believes he has a better chance of suiting up in baseball this year if he doesn’t participate in basketball.

Manion isn’t the only athlete who is choosing to specialize in a sport.  Specialization has become a popular choice for many high school athletes so that they can stay at a competitive level; but is it the right choice?

Some argue that playing multiple sports can develop a variety of well-rounded skills and build character as well as allow for a broad range of relationships and experiences.

Varsity baseball and girls basketball coach Josh Thurow prefers that the athletes play other sports as well as basketball and baseball.

“I appreciate it when the girls I coach participate in other sports over the off season,” Thurow said.  “Actually the basketball team hasn’t had an athlete who specialized in only playing basketball until this year when senior Sarina Baker transferred.”

Thurow also thinks that the workout programs he gives his athletes will help them improve in any other sports they play, however he doesn’t allow his athletes to participate in any other physical activities during that sport’s season.

Specialization, however, has its supporters.  Physical therapist Ben Lee concludes that if an athlete specializes in a single endeavor, then their performance and skill in that should be amplified.

“I like to use the analogy of one learning a foreign language,” Lee said. “If you study French exclusively, your chances of becoming fluent increase as opposed to studying French one week, then Spanish the next, and Chinese the week after that. It is still possible to make improvements in multiple sports at the same time, however your progress will be slowed.”

Lee went on to elaborate on the potential for injury and the dangers for an athlete who specializes in a single sport.

“The possible issues of only participating in one sport are over-use injuries and muscle imbalances,” Lee said.  “Take running, for example.  A runner who runs the whole year puts a lot more impact stress on their musculoskeletal system, and unless they cross train with weights will develop a well-conditioned lower body and an underdeveloped upper body.”

“Contrast that with an athlete who runs in the summer, and then switches to skiing in the winter. Skiing is a low-impact sport so the stress produced to the musculoskeletal system is less, and it is more of a ‘whole body’ sport than running is. This allows for a rest period from the impact and better overall conditioning then a single-sport athlete. It is a trade-off.”

Manion said he has also noted the trade off between conditioning and skills development.   Manion, who started practicing for baseball with some of the other varsity players in the middle of October, said his skills have improved greatly; however, he feels like basketball practices would make him better conditioned for the start of the baseball season, as they did last year.

Varsity boys basketball coach Lance Johnson agrees with Thurow and doesn’t prefer that the athletes he coaches specialize in basketball, as long as the other sports they play don’t interfere with basketball practices or games.  Johnson also believes that his workouts would be extremely beneficial for other sports by getting athletes in great shape as well as making them stronger.

Lee believes that it is important for an athlete to take breaks over the off-season.

“I would consider taking a break from intense competition more important for a single-sport athlete then it would be for someone who plays multiple sports for some of the same reasons covered earlier,” Lee said.  “Even though most sports have seasons with highs and lows throughout the year, which help in preventing [overuse injuries], there are some phases in year -round competition situations where complete rest is not possible. It is vital that athletes strive to get adequate rest and recovery at all times especially during the in-season. This however is a much wider-ranging issue when you think about how little sleep and rest Americans, especially teens, get in general.”

Lee suggests that a multi sport athlete will benefit most from a basic conditioning program that includes cardiovascular, strength and flexibility exercises.

“If the program is well designed then it should have reasonable carryover for a variety of sports demands,” Lee said.  “When the level of completion increases the training program becomes more specific to the demands of each particular sport. Such training program will often incorporate a concept called periodization as well as integration of sports-specific drills and exercise.”

If an athlete’s goal is to earn a college scholarship then the choice of specialization in their chosen sport is probably the right idea. However, the percent of high school athletes who actually receive athletic scholarships is extremely low. For most high school athletes, participating in multiple sports is a good idea.

“One of the major benefits of playing multiple sports per year is the cross training effect and break you get both physically and mentally from on season to off season and from sport to sport,” Lee said.

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