It’s the classic, all-American athlete: The teenage boy who excels in football, basketball, and baseball, or the high school girl who stands out in soccer, basketball, and softball. He’s the most popular guy in school; she’s featured in every newspaper in the area.
Some of our nation’s most legendary athletes have taken center stage in at least three sports—Jim Thorpe, Jackie Robinson, Jim Brown, Bo Jackson, and Deion Sanders, to name a few. The stereotype has been portrayed in great American literature: Biff Loman, a snapshot of the outstanding athlete in Arthur Miller’s 20th-century classic, Death of a Salesman.
Now, 10 years removed from the 20th century, we can see another kind of more figurative death: The death of the three-sport athlete in high school.
This is not an obituary, but simply a realization—what has happened to the 18-year-old leading his or her school in three, different sports?
Certainly, there are still a number of athletes who participate—and excel—in three seasons. But essentially, a boy who plays football then runs indoor and outdoor track, or a girl who runs cross country and outdoor track interrupted by basketball is essentially only taking part in two sports.
If we look back at the Citizen’s News all-decade teams at Woodland and Naugatuck, we’ll notice only three athletes among the top 25 of the decade—Woodland’s Shane Kingsley and Mikelyn Messina and Naugatuck’s Brian Mariano—shined in three different sports.
Perhaps the three-sport athlete is a thing of last century, but why hasn’t he or she crossed the timeline into the next millennium?
The answer, almost exclusively, is this: Specialization.
“When I was playing sports in high school, I played football,” Woodland athletic director Brian Fell said. “When football season was over, it was like, ‘Well what am I gonna do now?’ So I wrestled. When that was over, I was on the track team. There were separate seasons.”
But now, for the serious athlete, seasons are not separate. Almost every sport can be played year-round at special facilities, and it’s a widely held belief that in order to be outstanding in a given sport, an athlete must practice it all year long.
“There’s the mentality that if you want to be great at your sport, you can’t do it part-time,” Fell said. “It’s a lot more prevalent now because almost every sport is offered year-round. There’s a lot of pressure from outside groups of specialization, with AAU and fall coaches.”
Woodland softball and soccer coach Loren Luddy, a three-sport, 12-letter athlete in her own right at Taft, says it’s disappointing that not as many great athletes play as many sports. But she realizes the value of training for one sport.
“I do understand how important it is to specialize,” Luddy said. “I see it now in softball because to be really good, you have to be in the batting cage all year and pitching all year. It’s unfortunate that students don’t get the chance to play as many sports. Especially in small schools, sports need great athletes. It helps keep their time management consistent. It is possible [to specialize in one sport and play others], like Katie Alfiere, but I wish more would do it.”
Alfiere, heading next fall to Quinnipiac University to pitch for the Bobcats on a softball scholarship, specializes in hurling, but has also played four years of varsity basketball and was on the freshmen volleyball team. She says it’s never been too difficult for her to juggle multiple sports, even with her softball training.
“You need to have time management skills,” Alfiere said. “You need to work at it because you can get worn down easily. My freshman year, playing three sports, it got tiring. But you can do it. It depends on who you are. If you’re a driven person, you can do it. You have to like the sports, though. I didn’t like volleyball as much, and I wanted to concentrate on pitching because that’s what I excelled at.”
Still, Alfiere plays only two sports at Woodland, something a number of athletes at both schools do. Though it’s possible we have missed one or two, CN came up with only four athletes—Naugatuck’s Julia Longo, Alexis Granahan and Riker Mitchell and Woodland’s Eric Dietz—who are current standouts in three, different varsity sports.
So if specialization is the cause of the greatly diminished number of three-sport athletes, what are the effects?
Fell thinks from the wins-and-losses perspective, losing a couple of genuine athletes from some sports in favor of one specialized athlete essentially is a wash.
“I think there are two effects that cancel each other out,” Fell said. “I think when you have specialized athletes, that sport gets a really good athlete. On the other hand, you lose depth and the good role players that are important. I think the total effect is not much either way.”
Looking at the situation through the eyes of one of those specialized athletes, there are also benefits and detriments.
“It hurts you, but it helps at the same time,” Alfiere said. “Basketball helped me because it helped me be stronger for pitching, but it hurt me because it took some time away from me practicing pitching.”
The other angle, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the issue, is that specialization in specific sports has contributed to the sharp rise in athletic injuries in high school. Woodland athletic trainer Ray Donaghy says athletes who specialize in just one sport the entire year are far more susceptible to injury.
“What causes a lot of injuries I see now is the overuse of the same muscles because the kids are using them all year long,” Donaghy said. “When kids play football, basketball, and baseball, they’re using different muscles in different seasons. When kids specialize in a sport, they use the same muscles over and over. There’s no chance to recover.”
Donaghy also thinks there is pressure from people close to the athletes to specialize in a sport, which contributes to the recent rise in athletic injuries.
“In the past 10 years, kids don’t do much but one sport,” he said. “AAU coaches are so intrusive now. I don’t know, I think some parents might see [specialization] as an avenue to a college scholarship. But all of the things I’ve seen and read all point to a lot of the injuries, like ACLs and stuff, are due to overusing parts of the body.”
Is specializing good? It can be. Is it bad? It can be, too. But one thing that is certain is the three-sport athlete shares the same fate of Biff Loman’s dad, Willy, the genuine salesman—it’s a dying breed.