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More and more, high school athletes have stopped playing the field to concentrate on one sport

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 10, 2008 - He passes, tackles, pitches, bats, fields, hits, shoots and defends. Cody King is an increasingly rare breed among high school athletes -- a three-sport standout.

This fall he's playing safety and quarterback (1,000 yards rushing and 1,300 passing already) for Kirksville High School in northeastern Missouri. Once football ends, it's on to basketball, where King averaged 14.2 points a game last year as a junior shooting guard. Then comes baseball, the sport that's his ticket to a college scholarship. King, with his 90-mile-an-hour fastball and 60-plus strikeouts last spring, has verbally committed to Missouri.

King's parents and high school coaches have supported his choice to be an athlete for all seasons, even though scouts and summer baseball coaches have advised otherwise. Why let a potential injury in football derail your pitching career? Why choose playing time in basketball over training time for baseball?

King's response is refreshingly straightforward.

"People have tried to tell me I should just focus on baseball," he said. "But there's no way I could quit one of those sports now. I enjoy playing all three."

Only top high school athletes like King have the luxury of choosing to play several varsity sports. Historically, the best talents did just that. But these days, more and more are concentrating on one sport.

The Trend Toward Specialization

Statistics on multisport athletes are sparse. A survey from the National Federation of State High School Associations shows that participation in sports has risen nationally from more than 5.3 million people in the early 1990s to 7.4 million now. (Missouri ranks 15th with 171,711 high school athletes; Illinois is fifth with nearly double that amount.) But the group doesn't track participation choices of individual athletes.

"Very anecdotally, the trend is toward specialization," said John Gillis, assistant director of the federation.

College and high school coaches, along with athletic directors on both levels, have noticed a change over the past few years. Bryan Blitz, head women's soccer coach at the University of Missouri, said that while a majority of his current players were multisport athletes in high school, when he started as a coach nearly 15 years ago nearly everyone on the team had played several sports before college.

Brian Kessler, activities director at Parkway West High School, said the school is increasingly having a difficult time finding candidates for awards that go to three-sport athletes. Out of about 435 students who play sports there, about 30 are triple dippers -- a marked decrease from times past.

"The era of specialization in sports has sure made it difficult for students to continue to participate in school events," Kessler said. "There's so much pressure and so many things pulling on kids' time and energy."

There are, of course, do-it-all students who play several sports and still have time for other extra-curricular activities. And there are parents (as well as students themselves) who impose a one-sport rule to keep a more open schedule. Many top athletes try to maintain a life away from sports, too, but the pull Kessler talks about often comes from club team coaches who demand students' time in the off-season.

The importance of club sports can't be underestimated. Kelly Rhyne, an assistant softball coach at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, said most of her recruiting takes place over summer when the college season is done and when the club season is in full swing. The same is true for many college coaches, whose schedules during the season overlap with the high school sports calendar.

"We try to get out locally during the season, but if you want to get recruited nationally, you do it by playing club sports," said Anne Kordes, head volleyball coach at St. Louis University. "If a kid can play on a club team and do another sport I think it's awesome. But if the club team won't allow that, and if I'm recruiting a player, I'd rather her play on the club team."

Parents often see specialization as the best way for their student to score a college athletic scholarship. Tony Vitello, the Missouri assistant baseball coach and recruiting coordinator who made contact with King, said ultimately parents who pay coaches or send their kid to a sports camp want the most out of their investment. Thus, they are wary of spreading their young athlete's time too thin.

Marty O'Hern, activities director at Eureka High school, said the new orthodoxy about how to get a college scholarship doesn't always hold true.

"For some reason parents seem to all be convinced that the way to make it big is by concentrating on one sport," he said. "So, they spend time paying for off-season training and batting coaches, and they think everyone will get a college scholarship."

Fielding the High School Team

High school athletic directors say they notice the same participation patterns year after year. The top athletes play several sports their freshman year but by sophomore or junior season are focusing on one sport. Or, in the case of individual sports like tennis, the best talents play in national tournaments in lieu of high school competition.

O'Hern said athletes who come from wealthier families have long hired specialty coaches and paid entry fees for camps and tournaments. But now he sees students of less affluent families also going that route and opting to focus on one sport.

Multisport athletes remain as valuable as ever to high school sports programs.

"It's concerning to all athletic administrators that there are a limited number of athletes in your building," said Mike Gohn, director of athletics and activities for the Parkway School District. "Whenever athletes specialize in one sport the talent pool shrinks and the talent level on a team decreases."

At larger schools, there's rarely a problem finding another athlete to take the place of a student who has decided to focus on another sport. But at smaller schools, coaches often rely on athletes to fill several roles. Doug Baughman, athletic director at Kirksville High, which has fewer than 900 students, said that multisport athletes are needed for teams to have enough players. It's not uncommon to see an athlete play two or three sports there.

Kessler, the Parkway West athletic director, said the need for two- or three-sport athletes has increased (while the trend of more single-sport athletes has continued) as his school's enrollment dwindled from more than 2,000 decades ago to roughly 1,350.

Multisport athletes remain common at some schools. Kevin Fober, athletic director at DeSmet High School, said that while the number of three-sport athletes has likely decreased in his 14 years there, 70 percent of students play at least one sport and many play two. That's a product of the school's culture and the fact that there are several teams even within a sport (a varsity, junior varsity and freshman squad).

Kordes, the St. Louis University volleyball coach, said at many high schools, athletes are forced into deciding which coach to let down. "I don't like that clubs force you to choose; it's not fair to make kids commit to one thing. A lot of times kids will be crying after they've told a basketball coach they can't play anymore. I hate that for them."

O'Hern, the Eureka activities director, said he's concerned that if the trend of specialization continues, "we won't have high school sports as we know it." And he worries that coaches who pander to parents or athletes are compromising their values.

"There's no place in a high school's mission statement that our job is to prepare kids to get an athletic scholarship," he said. "That's not what high school sports are about."

What College Coaches See

College coaches are a pragmatic bunch when it comes to recruiting. They want to find the best talents, whether they are standout multisport athletes or highly specialized national competitors.

But that doesn't mean the coaches don't have opinions on the subject of single-sport participation. Many were dual-sport athletes themselves and understand the mentality of students who want to play in each season. The coaches were mainly told by their high school coaches to do as many sports as they could to stay in shape.

Blitz, the Missouri soccer coach, said he expects high school athletes to play club soccer because it gives them more instruction, but he also looks favorably on a recruit who puts time into high school competition. It shows the student is well-rounded and has school spirit, he said.

Added Vitello: "With a multisport player like (Cody) King, we know we're getting a great athlete who hasn't peaked, and who isn't going to burn out. It's extremely helpful, if we're picking between player A and B, to follow how player B does at basketball as well as baseball. I'd be lying if I said I make decisions solely on that, but it helps."

Rhyne, the SIU-Edwardsville coach, said that whether an athlete plays multiple sports or not doesn't factor into her recruiting equation.

King, the multisport Kirksville athlete, said playing sports other than baseball helps him stay in shape for pitching. He still throws baseballs after basketball practice and gets plenty of baseball training over the summer.

Both Blitz and Fober said they worry about single-sport athletes burning out.

"I think mechanically and physiologically, it's not good for a young athlete to do the same repetitions in one sport over and over," Fober said.

Still, as many of the coaches and even athletic directors noted, there are some can't-miss high school athletes with clear goals and strong bodies for whom specialization is warranted. It's just hard to always know who they are and whether their mindsets will change.

"I've had several athletes who come back after high school and say, 'I wish I'd have played a second or third sport. I miss it now'," Gohn said.

Elia Powers is a freelance writer in St. Louis. 

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