Specialization or multi-sport approach? Appropriate paths differ
Those one-handed, full-court passes must seem to come out of nowhere in women's basketball games, unless you know where NYU's Riley Wurtz came from.
"Not a lot of my coaches like those," Wurtz said. "They end up working out."
Wurtz graduated from Newtown High School in 2012 as a standout in three sports, including volleyball and lacrosse. But she had also played baseball, learning skills she might not have developed if she had just played basketball from a young age.
Wurtz may counter the argument that a young athlete needs to specialize in one sport to succeed at the next level.
But others see a special talent and say specialization will strengthen it even further.
"The point of the matter is, if you have ability in that particular sport, why not specialize and become the best you can?" said Bob Dikranian, a National Soccer Coaches Association of America Hall of Famer who's now director of coaching for the Beachside South Central program.
For some, specializing is thought of as a ticket to college. For others, it leaves them tied to one sport and possibly more open to injury. "Who should" and "when should they" are the big questions, and they're personal and sometimes very individual.
The trend is decidedly toward specialization.
"Everyone out there de-emphasizes sports specialization," said St. Joseph and former St. Luke's athletic director Kevin Butler, "but it's becoming more of the norm."
Three-sport athletes on way out
It shows up in some ways in our pages, too.
Wurtz is the only three-sport athlete to be named Connecticut Post High School Athlete of the Year, male or female, since 2008.
There were several three-sport athletes in years before that. Still, the diversity of options may best be shown by the fact that the last of the traditional football-basketball-baseball three-sport athletes to get our nod was in 2000, Immaculate's Doug Riepe (who has gone on to a career in NASCAR).
"The day of the three-sport athlete is coming to an end," Newtown athletic director Gregg Simon said.
There are different paths. Our list included two future pro men's soccer players. Kyle Martino of Staples in 1999 and Newtown's Marcus Tracy in 2005. But Tracy also stood out in basketball and track.
Dikranian said diversity can be a good thing, particularly at younger ages.
"At 5, 6, 7, let them play two, three, four different sports as much as they can," said Dikranian, who was the longtime women's soccer coach at Southern Connecticut State. "I'm very thankful myself for taking up tennis and golf, which you can do at an older age and still have fun in a somewhat competitive environment, playing with friends, different tournaments."
But around ages 10-12, he'd even suggest that a committed soccer player choose between, say, playing goalkeeper or playing the field.
On the other hand, Butler said he has seen athletic kids from, say, football pick up a lacrosse stick in ninth grade for the first time, get into the game, become a defensive midfielder and fall for the sport enough that they wind up playing in college.
"One of the greatest quotes I've heard," Butler said, "was from a college coach who said he'd rather have (a bench player) in basketball than, necessarily, a kid hitting a baseball in the cage all winter. That's not competitive."
Bunnell athletic director Dave Johnson said he hears from college coaches who like that multi-sport athletes learn different techniques and different exercises and have different kinds of agility.
And they also, he noted, avoid overuse injury, which has been one of the top arguments against specialization.
The Changing the Game Project, run by former Fordham soccer player John O'Sullivan, has a website (changingthegameproject.com) that aims to provide resources for parents in all aspects of youth sports.
O'Sullivan points to research from Loyola University Medical Center that specialization before adolescence can contribute to overuse injuries. Dr. Neeru Jayanthi even reported this year that overuse injuries are more prevalent in young athletes who have private insurance -- higher-income families who can afford equipment, lessons and travel programs -- than those with public insurance.
"We should be cautious about intense specialization in one sport before and during adolescence," Jayanthi said at a 2013 American Medical Society for Sports Medicine meeting. "Among the recommendations we can make, based on our findings, is that young athletes should not spend more hours per week in organized sports than their ages."
The study covered 1,206 athletes and reported 859 injuries, 564 of them overuse injuries. It termed 139 of those overuse injuries "serious," listing stress fractures, ligament injuries and injuries to cartilage and its underlying bone.
Jayanthi suggested at least one day off a week and 1-3 months off a year for young athletes and not specializing before adolescence. Westport psychologist Dr. Brett Denkin and his twin brother played several sports when they were young, but they were told to specialize in tennis at age 10.
They decided not to; they loved baseball. But if that sounds like a "play everything" advertisement, think again.
"If I had to do it over, it turned out we didn't have the size for baseball," Denkin said. "We were very, very good athletes, but without a lot of size, and we grew up in a town with a lot of size. It's very hard to have that perspective when you're 10 years old. My parents didn't push us at all."
Some people know what they want -- you'll hear a 9-year-old say she wants to be a doctor, Denkin said -- and are motivated and able to get there.
"Most people are conditioned by the environment they're in," Denkin said. "If (a parent) pushes them to Harvard or Yale to be a lawyer, they turn out miserable because they were pushed into a decision rather than making a conscious decision. A lot of people are doing that. The challenge is, if a person takes an alternate path, to be an artist, they might struggle financially."
When specialization makes sense
Follow your heart, follow the money: College costs can certainly give a parent pause. For the elite youth player, the carrot of a scholarship is a clear incentive. Whether that's available for everyone, whether specialization can prod the second- and third-tier athlete to that top level, that's a trickier question.
"Not that sport specialization is in and of itself a bad thing," Johnson said. "When it becomes excessive, when the pressure becomes excessive, that's when it becomes a negative rather than a positive."
Bunnell had a championship boys soccer team in 2011 that featured Zach Zurita and Freddy Metellus, now playing at Central Connecticut (Metellus scored in the Blue Devils' 1-0 win over Stony Brook on Friday), and Justin Lewis, now at Fairfield.
"Great kids and extraordinary soccer players," Johnson said. "For those kids, who are playing at the next level, focusing on a particular sport absolutely works to their benefit."
That's where, in soccer, the Academy comes in.
The U.S. Soccer Development Academy was founded in 2007 "to improve the everyday environment for the elite youth player," according to ussocccer.com. Scouts for the national program visit and watch games, with teams operating under a 10-months-a-year model.
"It's probably the best league in the United States," Dikranian said.
"Why? Better coaching. The competition is the best in the United States. For those teams, regional and national consideration by the United States Soccer Federation. You can see why it's appealing to start specializing."
Club programs in other sports, if perhaps not as intensive as Academy soccer, draw some top talent.
Parents invest in these clubs, Simon said, and their expected return is scholarship money. Jeanne Cooper, athletic director at Hillhouse and Hamden in recent years before taking over at Lauralton Hall this year, said she has seen the effect more in different sports in different areas.
The competition for scholarships is stiff.
"Basketball, there are probably 14 or 15 scholarships (per team). Football, quite a few, depending on Division I, II or so," Dikranian said. "Soccer, unfortunately, there are only 9.9. We think that's a little bit of an injustice, not even one per starter."
Good advice: Hit the books
Everybody's looking for an edge. Johnson sees one off the court.
"A high school student has a much better chance of getting an academic scholarship," Johnson said. "There's much more academic money available at all levels. If you really want to get that aid, be the best student you can be, No. 1. A very, very small amount are going to get that athletic aid."
Opportunities to improve on the field -- seven-on-seven football, volleyball camps, softball travel teams -- are out there, and Johnson said a good high school coach will let his players know about the good ones. A bad coach, he said, will pressure his players into something.
But as a basketball coach himself, Johnson said he loved to have multi-sport athletes.
"I found those kids not only improve athletically, but they don't get burned out playing basketball," Johnson said. "Now you haven't picked up a ball in a couple of months, you're reinvigorated."
Denkin had a different take on burnout. A lot of burnout, he said, "is in not knowing how to say no."
"You're trying to please your family. You're trying to please your community," Denkin added. "Burnout (comes about) over many years of not honoring yourself."
So how to honor yourself? It's different for everyone. For some, it's playing one sport and managing the pressures. For others, it's playing a little bit of everything.
"I could never say I was pushed," Wurtz said. "My parents said play everything, do everything while you can. They pushed me to play new sports. They wanted me to have fun.."
Wurtz, studying film and going to school in Greenwich Village while playing for the Violets, said she doesn't bother looking back, wondering what might've happened if she specialized: "I'm really grateful for where I am today."