As more athletes “specialize,” teams struggle to fill rosters

By Ashley Gonzalez

On February 22, 2018, the Riverside women’s basketball team lost their playoff game against Heritage High School by a score of 70-37.

The Lady Pirates overcame many obstacles this season, including dissolving their JV team midway through the season, but still finished second in the Tri-6 Conference tournament and advanced to the second round of the state playoffs.

Senior Ashauntee Nelson said head coach Alicia Jones and the players decided to cancel the JV season in December for disciplinary reasons.

“People on the team began to disrespect teachers,” Nelson said, “We don’t want that behavior reflecting us.”

Thought it was a voluntary decision, the women’s basketball team is the newest example of a Riverside athletic program struggling to keep a full varsity and JV roster.

Numerous coaches and players have cited many reasons for poor participation rates. Several Pirate coaches and athletes believe specialization has led students to pick one sport to play by the time they get to high school.

Research shows a growing number of student-athletes across the nation are focusing on one sport before they even reach high school. According to a 2017 USA Today article, 87 percent of division-one (DI) women’s gymnasts, 68 percent of DI men’s soccer players and 62 percent of women’s soccer players were one-sport soccer athletes by age 12. Tennis and ice hockey also had similar rates of specialization.

Sophomore Nathan Compton only plays soccer because his club team’s games and practices take up all of this free time.

“Soccer takes up so much of my time that I don’t have time to play another sport,” Compton said.

Compton believes that playing the same sport year-round makes him better than if he played other sports.

But assistant wrestling coach Broc Dickerson thinks playing multiple sports helps in the long run.

“For many reasons I think specialization is super-duper-uper unimportant,” said Dickerson, who participated in football, wrestling and baseball in high school and later wrestled at Campbell University. “Through different sports you’re going to work and strengthen parts of your body, especially your core, basically from your bellybutton to your kneecaps.”

Dickerson believes playing other sports makes his athletes better wrestlers.

“Football is a good translation, especially how they lift weights and the aggression factor – not being afraid of contact,” he said. “But what I noticed translates better for us are soccer players. It’s the way that they’re able to keep their legs up underneath their body, the way they move their feet.”

Dickerson also wants students to take advantages of opportunities to do many different things while they’re young.

“I was fortunate enough to be able to wrestle in college, but I never played another football or baseball game after high school and I probably never will,” Dickerson said. “Just understand that you’re never going to have another opportunity to do it, so you’re losing that opportunity when you specialize to do one sport.”

Some of the country’s best college coaches agree with Dickerson. Despite an increase in specialization before age twelve, USA Today also found that 71 percent of DI men’s football players and over 80 percent of men’s and women’s DI lacrosse players were  multisport athletes.

Some Riverside students also believe playing more than one sport helps them.

“My performance in football has gotten better with wrestling,” said sophomore Elijah Harris, whose dad encouraged him to wrestle. “My conditioning is better. I’m getting strong and running.”

Sophomore Ben Jakes plays soccer in the fall, runs winter track and plays lacrosse in the spring.

“There’s a lot of cross training between the three and they all help each other,” Jakes said. “They’ve helped me stay in shape for the other sports and allowed me to be more successful.”

Freshman Collin Pitts believes playing tennis makes him a better soccer player.

“I’m a goalie,” Pitts said. “I need to have good reactions and tennis definitely has helped me with that.”

Nelson, who is best at basketball but still plays other sports, believes it’s possible to both specialize in one sport while continuing to play others.

“I’ve played lacrosse, volleyball and basketball throughout high school,” Nelson said. “It’s helped my jumping, my running and conditioning and strength and yet I’m still really good at one sport.”   

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