There are still many multi-sport athletes on the Semiahmoo Peninsula, but with sport-specialization becoming a trend, some wonder if such athletes may become fewer and farther between in the future. (File photos)

‘No one can deny the benefits’ of playing multiple sports, says South Surrey coach

Are the days of the multi-sport athlete at risk of disappearing as sport specialization grows?

A quick glance around the Semiahmoo Peninsula suggests that two-sport athletes – or in some cases, three- or more-sport players – seem to be everywhere, from high-school basketball and volleyball courts to ball diamonds, ice rinks and rugby fields.

But dig a little deeper – look beyond the borders of South Surrey and White Rock – and you may find that fewer athletes are staying involved in multiple sports, choosing instead to specialize in only one, and many are making that decision at a younger age than ever.

Why it matters – if it does at all – depends on who you talk to.

Those who promote the multi-sport approach are concerned about one-sport burnout and injuries, and wonder how young athletes are affected if their all-in dedication to one sport doesn’t pan out as they’d dreamed.

Do they give up sports entirely for less-active pursuits? Will they look back with regret that they missed pursuing other endeavours? By pushing them to choose their paths early, is the table being set for future generations of less active youth?

The reasons for the one-sport trend are as varied as the sports being played, and range from high-performance academies snapping up young athletes and focusing their time and attention in one direction; to families pushing uber-talented youngsters towards a single sport in hopes that one day they might earn college scholarships, or even turn pro.

Some sports are simply more popular than others, especially in Canada where niche sports often have difficulty finding a foothold in a country dominated by hockey and, to a lesser extent, soccer and Little League baseball.

The increasing costs involved no doubt play a role as well.

“No one can deny the benefits (of a multi-sport approach), but the big issue that’s come up more recently is that our society has pushed so heavily towards making these kids choose a sport at a young age, and people have so much invested in it,” said Adam Roberts, a longtime rugby coach at Earl Marriott Secondary.

“There’s so much money on the line. If you’re pumping $20,000 into hockey every year, why would you want your kid to join a rugby team where he could possibly get injured?

“So I totally understand both sides of it, and where it’s coming from.”

Understandable or not, the general consensus – from local parents, coaches and players – is that such specialization is not a positive. At least not at the ages in which it’s currently happening.

The benefits, both physical and mental, of playing multiple sports have been outlined in myriad studies, and those findings are why people such as Greg Elliott, an exercise physiologist and therapist – and a former Earl Marriott Secondary basketball captain and NCAA Div. 2 player – continue to promote such an approach.

“I mainly work in rehabilitation, with people who have pain from chronic injuries,” he explained. “Those types of injuries, they can come from playing one sport (too much).

“There was a huge study that was done that showed that with kids who specialize early, they have a 70 per cent higher chance of being injured during their season, compared to people who play multiple sports. We see that in the clinic a lot – people who only play one sport.”

Semiahmoo Secondary’s Nicole Pajic drives to the hoop during senior girls basketball provincials last spring. (File photo)

On a positive note, many skills picked up in one sport can transfer directly to another, making for a more well-rounded player.

Semiahmoo Secondary’s Nicole Pajic, for example, believes years spent in dance have given her an edge on the basketball and volleyball courts.

“I danced for 10 years, and it helped me with my flexibility and my balance,” she said. “It’s helped me stay light on my feet.”

Elliott also points out a recent study out of the United States that, somewhat surprisingly, found a correlation between successful golf swings and vertical leap, of all things.

“Golf is a very rotational sport – hips, arms and elbows – so you wouldn’t think that something like vertical leap, which you normally associate with volleyball or basketball, would correlate, but it does when it comes to power and driving distance.”

When it comes to injuries, Elliott said that one key issue is that many sports require athletes to use their bodies in ways that are not natural. Take, for example, baseball, and the repetitive arm motions of a pitcher.

“It’s what I call ‘non-human-like movement.’ You’re doing things that you are not biologically supposed to do. In baseball, you’ve got pitchers tearing ligaments in their elbows. When else in history has someone had to throw a small projectile over and over again, a million times, as hard as they can each time? Never. Our body isn’t meant to do that, so things give out if you do it too much.”

Elliott speaks from experience. In addition to basketball, he played volleyball at EMS right through to graduation, and also played baseball as a youngster.

Mentally, sometimes you need to play Sport B just to give yourself a break from Sport A, he said, pointing to his time as an NCAA basketball player as evidence.

“You have to fight the burnout factor a little bit,” he said. “Your life revolves around it, and it’s hard to escape. It’s a different mentality when you get to that level. (Between) practice, medical treatment, meetings, studying film… you do that for four or five hours a day, for four or five years, and it’s exhausting.”

Of course, for talented individuals who wish to pursue a sport at its highest levels, such a commitment is necessary, and there inevitably comes a time where other activities take a backseat. It’s seeing kids make that commitment before it is necessary that raises the hackles of some.

“All our kids have played other sports before coming to rugby, and I don’t think we have any kids who play rugby all year-round,” said Roberts of Earl Marriott’s senior boys triple-A rugby team.

“We won provincials this year, and I sometimes wonder what would happen if I was just a complete ass and told the kids that they had to only focus on rugby, and we were going to play year-round and then I just ground them into dust. How much higher would their level be?

“I think you’d get some kids who would be OK, would improve a lot, but you’d also lose a bunch altogether. It’s a thing you have to figure out – how to balance it.”

Many athletes have been able to find that balance themselves, though sacrifices still need to be made.

Though Pajic plays multiple sports, a bigger commitment to basketball and volleyball meant giving up the aforementioned dance, as well as soccer. However, she recently took up rugby at school, so her schedule still doesn’t have many open spaces.

“People always ask me ‘How do you have time for all this?’ or they tell me that they get annoyed with (their) one sport because they’re playing it constantly, but for me, I play a lot of different sports and it keeps it more exciting and more fun,” she said.

Butch LaRoue fights for a puck during a game with the White Rock Whalers last season. (Contributed photo)

Butch LaRoue, a recent graduate from Earl Marriott, plays hockey for the junior ‘B’ White Rock Whalers and junior ‘A’ lacrosse for the Burnaby Lakers, but he was even busier in his early teens when competitive golf and high-school basketball were also on his calendar.

“There’s obviously times where the schedule is pretty hectic, but I wouldn’t want it any other way,” LaRoue said, adding that hockey and lacrosse seasons rarely, if ever, collide.

LaRoue’s younger brother, Sam, is in a similar boat. He is a teammate of Butch’s with the Lakers – in fact, he was the first overall pick in this year’s B.C. Junior ‘A’ Lacrosse League draft – and is also a star player on Marriott’s rugby and football teams.

Roberts coaches the younger LaRoue on the rugby pitch, and called him “an anomaly” who doesn’t seem to get burned out by playing so many sports, while acknowledging burnout can come from playing too many sports just as easy as it can from overplaying one.

On the multi-sport debate, the elder LaRoue brings an interesting perspective considering he’s seen both sides. Always a multi-sport athlete, in Grade 9 he left EMS to join one of the hockey academies that have popped up all across Western Canada in recent years.

Such academies combine schooling with high-level coaching, multiple weekly on-ice sessions, as well as off-ice work. The success of such programs in moving teenage players on to the next level of the sport is evident – last spring’s Western Hockey League bantam draft featured academy-groomed players almost exclusively.

“I’d suggest people go and play as many sports as they can while they have the ability to do it, but I also believe there’s a time where it’s time to buckle down and focus on one point,” LaRoue said.

“But growing up, through high school, I’d say as many sports as possible is best.”

Hockey isn’t the only sport with a focus on high-level academies, of course. Soccer has for years had similar programs – in both Canada and abroad – and baseball is starting to follow suit.

Elliott, like LaRoue, suggests that athletes play multiple sports through high school, at the very least – even if it’s pickup basketball after school or a game of catch in the front yard, as opposed to something more organized.

But regardless of the choices that young athletes, and their families, make, the key is finding balance, all agree.

A balance between one sport and several. Between dedication and burnout. Between playing for fun and playing for some future prize, be it a scholarship or professional contract.

As well, young people still need to carve out time for school work, friends, and recovery time in general, Elliott is quick to add.

“Kids should still be able to do kid things.”



sports@peacearchnews.com

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