The time commitment of year-round prep sports forces multi-sport athletes to specialize

·6 min read

Jul. 23—Sports and summer have long been a happy marriage for kids in South Dakota.

But now there is a sports overload that pulls young athletes in multiple directions. Added time commitments pushed by increasing expectations, coupled with a bevy of activities and summer jobs have led some kids to call for a divorce.

National high school sports participation dropped for the first time in 30 years, according to a 2019 National Federation of High School of State High School Associations, while the number of kids ages 6 to 12 participating in sports has declined for more than a decade.

A greater desire to attain athletic scholarships has led to increased year-round one-sport specialization. In return, high school athletic teams across South Dakota have created year-round programs in an attempt to recoup the losses of specialists and remain competitive during the season.

Simply put: Many youth athletes in South Dakota aren't freely flowing from one sport to the next despite coaches encouraging them to do so. The reason? It's just easier to focus on one sport while already being overloaded with technology, education and workouts.

"Hopefully as they get older, they have the mentality that they want to be two and three-sport athletes and they're going to try and balance the summer schedule," Mitchell baseball coach Luke Norden said. "One-sport dudes don't help any program, because even the one-sport athletes found out in the long run that it probably didn't benefit them all that much. Working on being an athlete is what kids need to do."

The majority of the Mitchell Post 18 Legion baseball squad was composed of multi-sport athletes, but playing 42 games in two months already limits how much time can be allocated elsewhere. Many kids must choose between summer jobs and sports — teens also spend an average of nine hours per day on social media, according to Pew Research Center — but add on summer workouts requested in other sports and there is little time for much else.

While baseball numbers in Mitchell have largely remained intact, other sports have been impacted. The Kernels have graduated six seniors in three seasons on the basketball squad, which played a major role in the decline in production until this season.

"They feel like they're going to fall behind in one sport, so they feel like they have to choose," Mitchell boys basketball coach Ryker Kreutzfeldt said. "I think that's on us as coaches. We have to find different ways of doing things so that it becomes easier to be a multi-sport athlete because we can't afford to be losing as many kids in each sport as we are right now."

Creating balance

Helping kids balance their sports may be the most critical aspect in developing multi-sport athletes, but it is also the most difficult.

Sanford Health lead performance psychology specialist Andy Gillham says there is often a disconnect between players and coaches, who sometimes do not understand — right or wrong — the desires of kids. If teens are already spending between seven and nine hours per day consuming media, it narrows their time even more.

When kids have the option to participate in a rising number of non-athletic activities with friends or earn money at a job, spending an hour in a weight room, an hour in the gym and then several hours at a baseball game may not always stack up during the summer.

He draws a comparison to college athletes, who are limited to 20 hours of athletic time per week by the NCAA to create balance.

"If the college athlete that's obviously older, a little more grown, mature, is only able to participate 20 hours per week, we have to be a little more cautious about the 15-year-old high school athlete that has less time available because of the school day," Gillham said. "Also, their prep sport is taking 23-25 hours per week. That's more time than what the college kids who have more time available are spending. That, to me, is as much of a hiccup on the stress of the athletes than anything else."

Gillham, however, also reminds that it is ultimately parents who pay for equipment, sign-up fees, travel and camps and they must be more in-tune with the desires of their children. While high school coaches also tend to have more interest in the personal welfare of students than coaches in the bottom-line business of college and pro sports, they have to manage entire rosters and winning is still imperative in keeping their jobs.

"The entity that is in it for a financial gain, even if it's to pay the coach's salary, that is not necessarily going to do what is best and correct for the individual athlete," Gillham said. "To me, this all comes back to education. We have to have an understanding of what is best for the athlete and how we can help coaches and administrators keep that in mind and what resources can we provide parents to navigate those conversations."

So, parents become the deciders in what is in the best interest of their children's mental and physical health. Are the negative components worth pushing recklessly when 2% of 8 million high school athletes receive a scholarship?

Studies have shown that kids who spend more hours per week than their age playing a sport are 70% more likely to experience an injury due to overuse. Also, kids who play one sport for eight months of the year are three times more likely to suffer overuse injuries to the hip or knees.

"If we're talking about the stress on an individual athlete and individual family, then we need to help parents advocate for that individual athlete and individual family," Gillham said. "It can't just fall only on the coach, who has a much broader responsibility — his or her own family and the entire roster of athletes."

To combat specialization and consuming the time of athletes and coaches, Bon Homme has a unique strength and conditioning program open to all boys and girls. Since strength and conditioning applies to all sports, the coaches were all able to hop on board with the plan.

Longtime Cavalier football coach Byron Pudwill likened the program to how learning to read and write helps in all facets of life. Being stronger, faster and more agile is applicable to any sport offered at the school.

"With the advent of the 7-on-7 (football camps), team camps — pick a sport there's a camp for it — it's kind of like keeping up with the Joneses," Pudwill said. "We have 44 boys (in the strength program) and the girls do their own thing and it will apply to anything. ... We get non-football players in there and there isn't a sport where the coach wants you to be stronger."

Regardless of the trend in participation, Pudwill believes the days in which summers are dominated by pickup basketball or football games and sandlot baseball are gone for good. Structured practices and camps appear to be the permanent replacement, and despite the positives that arise, he does not think the constant structure is always good.

"Everything is so supervised now," Pudwill said. "... When we played there were never any adults around and there were some good life lessons learned. When you didn't have your mom and dad there to protect you, you learned in a hurry. There were certain things you could say and do and certain things you could not say and do. Those life skills helped a lot."

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