Specialization is sports issue at MDI High

BAR HARBOR — In the wake of the women’s World Cup, the national debate on sports specialization has come to the forefront of sports media.

A popular article written by Martin Rogers for USA Today looked at the team that won the World Cup while setting viewership records and deduced that the team played at least 14 different sports competitively while growing up. All believed that the experiences significantly helped rather than hindered their soccer abilities.

Complying with rules governing student athletes competing in multiple sports is also a focus at Mount Desert Island High School.

The article on World Cup players is the most recent in a long debate about the merits and dangers of sport specialization in young athletes. In an age where more children than ever are playing sports and college prices are skyrocketing, the elusive scholarship offer compels many athletes to focus on one sport in the hope of achieving that dream. While drive and work ethic are often the very qualities we prize in an athlete, single-minded focus does not come without risk.

In a 2015 study published in the “Journal of Sports Rehabilitation,” researchers recruited 546 female student athletes from a school district in Kentucky. Of that group, 357 were multi-sport athletes, while the rest were single-sport athletes. The study found that athletes who participated in just one sport were more likely to suffer an increased risk of anterior knee pain, which is closely related to the common ACL-type injuries.

Perhaps more importantly, the American Academy of Pediatrics writes that “young athletes who specialize in just one sport may be denied the benefits of varied activity, while facing additional physical, physiologic and psychological demands from intense training and competition.” Student athletes who focus on one sport too early may indeed achieve the college dream but quit due to burn out.

These risks conflict with the popular 10,000-hour philosophy, the idea that to be truly elite at any discipline, you must complete 10,000 of focused, organized practice. However that does not have to be at the expense of other athletic experiences.

Mount Desert Island High School Athletic Director Bunky Dow said “[College] coaches want to see competitiveness and how you handle adversity. So, if you’re a star on the track team for example, and you don’t play that much in another sport, college coaches would look at how you handle that adversity.”

That support is not without backup. Following controversy around swimmers choosing to pursue club practices and then return to their high school team for meets, the Maine Principal’s Association adopted the Bona Fide team rule. This rule states that to be a member of a team, a student athlete must be “regularly present for and actively participate in team practices and competitions. Bona fide members of a school team are prevented from missing high school practice or competition to compete or practice elsewhere.”

Under this policy, student-athletes are allowed to pursue one waiver per year for extraordinary purposes, such as a “prestigious weekend event.” The waiver is granted by the school principal.

At MDI High School, that process is a conversation between the coach, athletic director and principal. The policy extends only to sport activities and applies to those sports that are not in season as well.

“I would strongly discourage people focusing on one sport, because they lose out on what being on a team is like,” Dow said. “You learn about teamwork, you learn about commitment, which is really what we try to foster in our athletic programs.” The problem does not seem to be prevalent on the island, thanks to a robust youth sports program that has recently been revitalized with the creation of the Acadian Youth Sports group, which partners with local community centers to offer plenty of opportunities for young athletes to develop their skills.

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