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Is Year-Round Participation in One Sport Good for Youths?

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Copyright 2013 Journal Sentinel Inc.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Wisconsin)
August 22, 2013 Thursday
Early Edition
Sports; Pg. 22
1446 words
OPEN SEASON | CHILD'S PLAY: THE COST OF YOUTH SPORTS;
The emphasis on year-round participation in one sport has been the approach to groom elite college athletes. But is it the right thing to do?
JR RADCLIFFE; jradcliffe@jrn.com, Waukesha NOW (WI)

When the University of Wisconsin defeated Michigan State in a wrestling dual meet last December, members of the Askren Wrestling Academy were there taking it all in. The year-round training facility, opened in 2011 and bearing the name of former Arrowhead state champions Ben and Max Askren, calls the outing an "ignition event," something that simply gets its participants excited about wrestling.

"We'll get the kids in the environment, motivate them and let them see the next level," said John Mesenbrink, the decorated former Arrowhead varsity coach who now coaches full time for the academy. "Some parents think we have to practice and get ready for state tournament (instead); we have to be competing. It's train, train, train, compete. (From our perspective), it's nice to chill out and maybe get away from the sport completely or come at it from a little different angle."

It's important to hear Mesenbrink praise the virtues of relaxation, considering the main advantage of his affiliation with the Askren Academy, for which he left coaching at AHS, is that he can now work with pupils on a year-round basis.

"One of the biggest issues is the emphasis on competition," he said. "When they're in the season, competition is just so fierce and intense. Competitions take a huge toll on the kid. For our younger athletes, we try to really just get them to chill out from a competition standpoint. Maybe it's one (competition) a month. (Parents) kind of look at us like were crazy. It's hard to give them an analogy. Do you go into your classrooms every day and just take tests? You're not going to develop skills and improve (that way). Are you really addressing mistakes, or are you developing habits, good or bad? Kids are going to take those all the way through their career."

There is a point, Mesenbrink said, where kids midway through high school may want to focus more intensely on one discipline, with aspirations of competing in college. But he's unlikely to advise younger wrestlers to exclusively wrestle in all seasons.

Oconomowoc's Sean Smith also weighed in on the question. Smith is the former president of the Oconomowoc Area Baseball Club (OABC) and now runs Stiks Academy, a performance center focused on cultivating the well-rounded athlete. He oversees a number of "Select" baseball teams that travel the country. "I encourage my players to play other sports; I want them to play football and wrestle," Smith said. "You can sit there and practice baseball nine out of 12 months of the year, but if you're not playing games, you lose that competitiveness."

On the surface, those are conflicting ideas, but at their core, Mesenbrink and Smith are in agreement: Focusing too intensely on one thing isn't healthy. In the age of Select sports, "specialization" has become a dirty word, with most school officials lamenting the loss of the well-rounded athlete. Whether it's because most schools rely on athletes to play multiple sports, many feel the year-round schedule is too taxing on youth or because multiple disciplines simply enriches a player's talent, most everyone agrees: It's better to be just OK at several things than truly good at one sole focus.

Will numbers decline?

Now that the ideas of "Select" and "specialization" have taken hold for several years, one theory suggests that participation has begun to suffer, with many kids deterred from the sport at an early age. There are signs of decline at the varsity level, but they aren't dramatic and could be attributed to a number of factors.

WIAA varsity girls basketball, playing in the winter concurrently with the increasingly popular club volleyball season, had 12, 507 participants in 2007-08 compared to 11, 544 in 2011-12. WIAA Director of Communications Todd Clark said there are many ebbs and flows, however.

"It could be a variety of reasons, of which specialization may be one factor, but that factor isn't new," Clark said. "Those opportunities have been going on for quite some time, well before the last couple years where a slight decline has taken place. An argument can be made that it is a variety of things, including coaching choices, family situations or weeding kids out at too early of an age by focusing on a handful of kids in the fifth, sixth, seven and eighth grades, whereby kids quit because they been assigned to a 'B' squad. That may be more of the story than specialization, but that's, again, only speculative and anecdotal."

As Clark points out, a number of additional sports have gained popularity in recent years, such as lacrosse, rugby and skiing, creating an opportunity to take athletes away from other sports.

"We emphatically support the multisport approach," Clark said. "Our position is kids should participate in as many activities as possible. There is research that supports the position that academic performance, as well as some other benefits of interscholastic activities, correlates with higher GPAs."

In Oconomowoc, participation in rec programs has remained strong, though the Select operation takes a much larger role once a child reaches high-school age.

"The role of specialized sports programming has shifted over the past 16 years that I have been with the city Recreation Department," said Jennifer Froemming, the Oconomowoc recreation manager. "Club sports in Oconomowoc have exploded, so the focus of our programming has changed as well, and we now focus on getting as many children exposed to sports so that they can find their interests. We then look to the clubs to provide the next level of sports programming."

Rather than an acrimonious relationship between rec and Select sports, Oconomowoc has developed a friendly partnership, for example, with the OABC.

"We currently provide the introductory program for baseball and girls softball and then look to the club to provide a higher level of play for families that are seeking a more-competitive playing experience," Froemming said. "As children age, the pool of players decreases as children find their areas of interest and move into more-specialized sports. By the time they turn 15 years old, they have usually decided which sports that they want to continue to play, which caused the overall numbers to decline. Oconomowoc is not large enough to support many teams, so the baseball club has taken on offering the teams at those levels."

The City of Oconomowoc operates Roosevelt Field, which the club uses to host many games, and the two organizations work together to keep the facility at a high standard.

"I think most recreation departments have come to recognize that these clubs exist and that they are the way of the times," Froemming said. "It is our job to work positively with these organizations to ensure that the people within our communities are given the opportunities to play, no matter who it is with. The true philosophy of community recreation is truly that. It is not necessarily our role or responsibility to provide the upper levels of play, rather playing opportunities for everyone regardless of ability."

Best of both worlds

Smith feels Select teams give kids a vehicle to face tougher competition and be seen by a broader audience, particularly in baseball - with college coaches seldom making the trip to see a talented player. Many parents have had positive experiences.

"If you have an athlete that is talented enough to want to play collegiate sports, then you're never going to get better exposure than you are in AAU basketball or club volleyball," said former Arrowhead girls basketball coach Heidi Hamilton. "When they do showcases or they're old enough to get picked up by college coaches, you're going to tournaments that have 200-plus college coaches there. It's awesome exposure."

Still, Smith believes there is a place for the good old-fashioned rec leagues, too.

" (Leagues run by) YMCA, Okauchee, Ixonia I'd love to see people play in that," Smith said. "All those kids, more in baseball than any other sport, develop differently there. You may have your smallest kid at 8, 9, 10 years old, where they don't make Select teams, but it's important to continue those rec leagues. I want as many people playing baseball or football or soccer or whatever because those kids develop differently (and be good enough to continue playing at an older age)."

And spreading to multiple sports doesn't hurt, either.

"You are Suzie who likes to play basketball," said Dr. Kevin Walter, the program director of the Pediatric & Adolescent Sports Medicine program at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin. "You are not Suzie the basketball player. If you identify with your sport that much, you're bound for heartbreak."

Copyright 2013 Journal Sentinel, All Rights Reserved.

August 22, 2013

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