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Making more well-rounded athletes: Mitchell leaders, coaches discouraging specialization

(Republic photo illustration)

Spencer Neugebauer knows he'll be finished competing in athletics some day, but he's not ready to call it quits yet.

The multi-sport athlete is currently pulling double duty, playing baseball for the Mitchell High School club team and running sprints for the Kernel track and field team. It's a situation emblematic of Neugebauer's prep career in Mitchell, where each season is filled with a different sport.

Rather than focusing on one particular sport to specialize in, the future Dakota Wesleyan University football player has offered his talents and personality to many athletic teams.

"It helps you stay competitive year-round, instead of just practicing and not keeping that competitive edge," Neugebauer said. "In Mitchell, it's a smaller town and people need you to go out for other sports to have numbers."

Neugebauer, a senior, is one of more than 50 MHS students that participates in multiple athletic sports. And that's how MHS Activities Director Cory Aadland and many varsity coaches in Mitchell hope to see all athletes approach their prep careers.

It's a mindset against youth specialization, where young athletes focus on year-round skill development in one sport in order to give athletes a chance at becoming good enough to play a sport beyond high school.

"It's something I don't agree with and it's something I'd want our kids to get away from," Aadland said about kids focusing on only one sport. "There's so many benefits to being in multiple sports. There are physical things, like, overuse injuries or burnouts. There are mental things, too. If you are the best player in one sport, you may or may not be in another sport. It's good to have different levels of success and then they find a different role."

Aadland said at the high school level in Mitchell, there aren't many examples of specialization.

"We have a lot of kids that are doing two things at once," Aadland said. "They will be playing a school sport and some other club sport or training for another sport."

In his first two years at MHS, Neugebauer competed in football in the fall, club hockey in the winter, club baseball in the spring and legion baseball in the summer. For his junior year, Neugebauer added track and field in the spring and during his senior year, he dropped club hockey and competed on the MHS powerlifting team.

"Going out for different sports has helped me as an athlete grow," said Neugebauer, who credited his parents and numerous youth coaches for helping him develop as an athlete and person. "The coaches in Mitchell know how to help build athletes up. The main thing is the coaches have been around our community for a long time and they are great mentors."

A local and national topic

Ever since the rise of Tiger Woods in golf and sisters Venus and Serena Williams in tennis as two notable examples, youth specialization has become more common in America. Both competed solely in their sports from a young age.

While not everyone is the next Tiger or Serena, the demand for athletic success has not wavered. Alongside the professional example of youth specialization, the steady rise in costs for a college education has made collegiate athletic scholarships even more desireable.

"It's a nationwide thing and it's going on everywhere," said Aadland, who added activities directors across South Dakota have had some discussions on it. "Parents are the ones pushing specialization more and trying to look at college scholarships. That's not necessary. A college scholarship is not determined by an eighth-grader deciding I'm just going to play this one sport."

A few recent national studies conducted on issue have sided with the benefits of multi-sport athletes. The Aspen Institute, which was created in 1949 for humanistic studies, conducted a Project Play report, where a survey conducted by the United States Olympic Committee at the request of Project Play, proved seven out of 10 U.S. Olympians said they grew up as multi-sport athletes.

Tracking Football, a NCAA-compliant football recruiting service, released information after last year's NFL Draft that 26 of the 31 first-round picks, including No. 1 pick Jared Goff, had been multi-sport athletes in high school. In total, 224 of the 256 draft picks had played more than one sport in high school and more than a third of the drafted players were three-sport athletes.

In the past four years, MHS had an average of 284 male athletes, grades 9-12, participate in eight South Dakota High School Activities Association sanctioned sports (basketball, cross country, football, golf, soccer, track and field, tennis and wrestling), per year.

The SDHSAA keeps a participation survey on all sanctioned sports but doesn't track aggregated data on multi-sport athletes in a useable manner.

SDHSAA Assistant Executive Director John Krogstrand said the SDHSAA participates in the National Federation of State High School Athletics annual participation survey. The NFHS survey doesn't request data on multi-sport athletes, but uses sample size surveys to find ratios of multi-sport athletes.

Krogstrand said the SDHSAA does see sport specialization as a problem.

"I would say that not just within the SDHSAA, but in any organization that truly has young kids' best interests at heart, sport specialization is, and continues to be a concern," Krogstrand said via e-mail. "This concern is not baseless—peer-reviewed scientific studies continue to come out showing that sport specialization, at the least, poses a greater injury threat to our youth."

Krogstrand said there may be perceived benefits to sports specialization of kids, but added there is no doubt about the increased level of risk and harm to young kids, who specialize.

Middle school vs. high school

At the high school level in Mitchell, the trend of youth specialization hasn't had a major impact. It's future generations following the single-sport specialization that compelled MHS club and legion baseball head coach Luke Norden to write an opinion column, questioning the reason behind youth specialization, that was published in The Daily Republic on Feb. 16.

"I wrote that article because I was hoping kids would understand, and younger parents would understand, the importance of continuing to do things," Norden said. "Once younger kids take a year off from something, it's hard to get them back involved. It seems like kids are getting out of multiple activities, not just one activity."

Norden, who is in his 14th year coaching baseball, said youth specialization isn't just hurting youth baseball in Mitchell, but all sports. He added in his tenure with the Mitchell Baseball Association, the number of teams always goes up and down depending on enrollments, but stressed it's middle school-aged kids he's worried about stopping a sport too soon.

"Over the last couple of years, younger athletes in the middle school age, have quit doing other activities in middle school," Norden said. "That's a good time to expand and do multiple things because that's when you begin to travel more and your horizons broaden. It just seems lately, more kids are deciding to pull out of sports to just focus on one sport."

Neugebauer said his first competitive sporting team was the Mitchell Mustangs youth baseball team, around sixth-grade. The team began practicing baseball year-round, but Neugebauer continued to play football and hockey throughout middle school and high school.

After helping Mitchell win its first playoff-era state football championship this past fall, Neugebauer did not participate on the Mitchell Marlins hockey team. While he did compete in the MHS club powerlifting team in the winter months, Neugebauer said he missed the social benefits of being on the hockey team.

Norden said most of the onus for a balanced approach to youth sports is on the parents and coaches involved.

"They are the ones that need to hang it up and say it's football season or it's baseball season, we're not playing basketball," Norden said. "It's not just those sports, but whatever the case may be with golf, tennis or any sport. Kids shouldn't have to make a decision with a sport that is out of season."

Specialized success

Jacob Dahme, Mitchell's top-flight tennis player this season, has played tennis exclusively in high school. He first started playing tennis in seventh grade, but from freshman year on, Dahme focused solely on tennis, which he credited for becoming one of the top tennis players in the state.

"Tennis is a different sport from others, because it is so individualized. If you want to be successful in tennis, it's all on you," said Dahme, who also participated in marching band, show choir, pep band and drumline. "Every point you are going to win or lose based on what you have done."

While his extra focus on one sport has helped him on the tennis court, Dahme said his experiences with competitive team sports in middle school also played a role in the athlete he has become.

"They helped me develop team skills and a mental strength," said Dahme, who played on a traveling baseball team in middle school. "Tennis is so much more mental than a lot of other sports, and being a part of a team, seeing how other people deal with the stress of playing, things like that have really helped me."

Dahme credited multiple assistant coaches and youth coaches for helping him grow.

Having more than one coach is important, Aadland said, especially when it comes to teaching young athletes.

"When you are being coached by multiple coaches, you are hearing different voices and that's beneficial," Aadland said. "Our coaches are good about encouraging our students to be in multiple activities. I think we do a good job of getting our kids in multiple things, but I'd even like to increase that even more."

Both Aadland and Krogstrand said addressing the issue of youth specialization starts with education and discussion. In Mitchell, Norden and other varsity coaches have publicly brought the problem up in hopes of pointing a light on the issue.

"A big piece of the puzzle remains educating coaches, parents and community members alike of the risks of devastating injuries to young athletes that come from overuse, over-training and sport specialization," Krogstrand said. "Our association will continue to pursue policies and recommendations to our membership that encourage the development of the student as a whole, and not in the specificity of a single sport or activity."

Aadland added the pressure to achieve an athletic scholarship shouldn't be placed on any young athlete. The solution might be a simple as keeping sports fun.

"I've seen eighth-graders bound and determined to get a college scholarship and now as sophomores, they continue to go out for the sport but it becomes unenjoyable," Aadland said. "Sports can be a lot of work sometimes, but at the end of the day, we need to maintain having some fun."