Weighing on the benefits of athlete specialization vs. multi-sport athletes

Some question if playing multiple sports raises risk of injury

Jack Soble, Sports Editor

Athlete specialization – playing only one sport – has become a hot topic.

Is it more beneficial to focus on the athletic activity that you either like best or are best at, or should student athletes broaden their spectrum and play two or three sports?

The subject has come underscrutiny recently, with JJ Watt, star Defensive End for the Houston Texans, taking to the best place to add fuel to the fire: Twitter.

“If someone encourages your child to specialize in a single sport, that person generally does not have your child’s best interests in mind,” he tweeted on March 6. It created a storm of opinions, some agreeing and some dissenting.

To be clear, Watt was not stating that specializing in one sport is inherently bad. He was merely encouraging the athletes themselves, and not coaches or parents, to make the decision on how many sports to play.

For instance, an athlete wants to play basketball in addition to football and a coach preventing him from doing so to focus on solely football should not happen.

However, that hasn’t stopped the debate that has come from it, both on the internet and in person. New Trier athletes and coaches have lots to say on the subject as well.

“It’s become more common,” Strength and Conditioning coordinator Jim Davis. “As a strength and conditioning coach, I think you should play a wide variety of sports.

If they could make the team, I think it would be great for a football player to play basketball and then go run track, assuming they could keep up with their strength and conditioning along side all of that.

There’s something about being part of a team, that if maintained through a year, makes you a better competitor.”

Most coaches generally encourage multi sport athletes, but stress that if a player isn’t participating in another sport, he or she is required to participate in an offseason strength and conditioning program.

Some players agree that specialization isn’t the best route, like one member of the soccer, swimming, and water polo teams. “I like to play sports, it keeps me busy, and it keeps me in shape,” Sophomore Bo Barrett said about why he chooses to be a three sport athlete.

However, the opinion that playing only one sport is bad is not shared by all New Trier athletes. Two football players shared their side of the story. “Football is the only thing I’m passionate about,” said Sophomore Ben Matuska.

“Football is the sport I love the most. It’s the one thing I can do and train for all the time, without taking up all my time when I could be doing schoolwork otherwise,” agreed fellow Sophomore Sam Palmer.

Some coaches, though, are starting to see a link between specialization and injuries.

While a couple of one-sport athletes disagree, there may be a relation between playing one sport and getting hurt.

“I don’t want to over-assume, but the best way to become resilient to injury is intentional strength and conditioning and continuous play,” said Davis. “We have more lower leg injuries now than probably we ever have, and I think that might be due in part to specialization, hypothetically.”

On the other hand, some believe participating in a high volume of activities can also increase the risk of injury.

“All I know is that for me, I’ve never been particularly injury prone, and maybe playing just one sport helps,” Matuska said.

“I feel like with one sport there’s less chance of injury because you spend more time training [in the offseason] to prevent injury,” said Palmer.

According to a January 2017 study by the National Federation of High School Associations and printed by the Washington Post, High School athletes are 70% more likely
to suffer an in-season injury than ones who play multiple sports, confirming Davis’s suspicions and the suspicions of others who see a link between specialization and injury.

Davis stresses that above all, the important thing is to have fun, and that the student-athlete is happy with his or her decision to specialize or not.

In the end, it’s their decision, and parents and coaches have to respect that.