$1 for 3 months. Save 97%.
$1 for 3 months. Save 97%.

MHSAA: Versatility trumps specialization when participating in sports

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Michigan State wide receiver Cody White played four sports at Walled Lake Western High School.

Lansing — The girl, who is heading into the ninth grade in September, sat with her mother Monday in the office of Jack Roberts, the executive director of the Michigan High School Athletics Association.

She wondered, Roberts said, whether playing basketball and soccer is a good idea, when she could concentrate on one.

Roberts said he made it as plain as he could: Why choose?

“We talked about the single-sport experience versus the multisport experience, and the risks of not developing like all of the others who chose to go that way,” he said.

“I was able to tell the student and her mother that there is lots of research now that will demonstrate that playing two sports will make you a better athlete in both.

“It will avoid the risk of overusing certain muscles, joints and bones, and make a healthier athlete.”

More young athletes and their parents need to have that conversation, according to people across the spectrum of sport.

Efforts to supercharge development by dropping other sports for the sake of specialization, in pursuit of college scholarships or even professional careers, is counterproductive, many doctors, trainers, coaches and administrators say.

Amid a mounting toll of sports-related injuries and ample suggestions that cross-training is intrinsically beneficial, even for those who will eventually specialize, the state high school athletic association has launched initiatives to keep school kids participating in multiple sports, including the MHSAA Task Force to Promote Multi-Sport Participation.

On Tuesday, MHSAA released its first annual report on specialization.

It will help track trends and assess the effectiveness of the initiatives of the association.

Among the 80 percent of the high schools in the state voluntarily taking part in the survey, 42.8 percent of athletes participated in more than one sport, including 44.6 percent of the boys and 40.6 percent of the girls.

Some schools have rates as high as 80 percent, and, especially in more sparsely populated areas, it is above 90 percent.

MHSAA and others see great benefit in pushing the state average higher.

Elite professional, Olympic and collegiate athletes talk about their development and say it benefited from playing multiple sports.

Jack Roberts, MHSAA executive director


Then, they assert there is increasingly too much specialization.

“I think if you talk to the scientific community, including sports medicine physicians, sports psychologists and physiologists — I was at a panel for the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine, a think tank, about a year ago — everyone feels that kids are starting too soon,” said Daniel Gould, a professor at Michigan State, and director of its 40-year-old Institute for the Study of Youth Sport.

There are several reasons to encourage young athletes to diversify, Gould and others said.

As important as it is for more mature athletes to rest, younger athletes benefit greatly from not using the same growing muscles, joints and bones, constantly.

A study from the University of Wisconsin last year added considerable weight to the growing evidence that a spike in youth sports injuries is related, in part, to specialization.

Burnout is also an issue.

A consensus statement in 2016 from the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine concluded that "there is no evidence that young children will benefit from early sport specialization in the majority of sports.”

It is especially so, the society agreed, given the risk of both burnout and overuse injury.

Meanwhile, the skills employed in multiple sports are often beneficial when eventually confined to one.

Brian M. Swinehart, director of athletics and secondary physical education for the Walled Lake Consolidated Schools, points to Cody White, a receiver at Michigan State, who graduated from  Walled Lake Western High.

“Cody White played four sports coming up, through his high school career at Western,” Swinehart said.

“He was a center fielder on the baseball team. He played basketball. He ran track. He did all those things.

“In talking with his dad — Sheldon White, who played in the NFL — his dad said, ‘I’m not going to let him specialize.’”

But some forces are pushing it.

“You have entrepreneurs who are making money off the backs of these parents and kids in youth sports organizations that tell them, ‘If you want to be good, you have to commit to us. You have to play year round,’” Swinehart said.

“We constantly hear from our kids, through our coaches, that they are being told they have to play a sport year-round if they want to go to college.

“That’s what’s happening.”

Parents are too often too eager to sign up their kids.

Because high school coaches sometimes make the same demands of their best players, Roberts said the MHSAA is providing training administrators to hire less selfish coaches.

“A coach that tells a kid to specialize is being selfish,” Swinehart said.

“A coach that asks his kids to participate in another sport is one who is looking out for his kids.”

Roberts and Swinehart, who is a member of the task force, said the MHSAA is particularly concerned about persuading parents.

“Parents don’t understand,” Swinehart said. “They say, ‘I’m going to get my kid a college scholarship.’

“The best way to make him a better athlete is to play as many different sports as you possibly can because the crossovers are there.”