Kelsey Ubben is among an increasingly rare breed of athlete.
The Douglas County High School senior plays volleyball for the Huskies and for her club team, the Colorado Volleyball Association. She also is playing basketball this winter for her …
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The Douglas County High School senior plays volleyball for the Huskies and for her club team, the Colorado Volleyball Association. She also is playing basketball this winter for her school.
"My club coach is really flexible with me and my basketball schedule, which is awesome," the 6-foot Ubben said. "The variety is awesome because you are using your body in different ways than you would in one sport, you get to know more people and it’s just more fun."
But athletes like Ubben could be on the path to extinction. The era of single-sport specialization at the high school level has arrived. Intense year-round training in one sport, to the exclusion of others, has become the norm.
"The goal to become the next Olympian or more commonly, to obtain a college scholarship, motivates many parents to encourage their children to specialize in one sport at a young age," states the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. In a position statement published in 2014, the organization said intense focus on one sport at an early age may increase the risk for overuse injuries and burnout.
Specialization is a trend that is particularly evident in girls sports, with basketball and volleyball players, among the most notable examples, often sticking to one pursuit or the other. This, despite the similar skills and physical attributes, like height, that are prized on both courts
The Colorado High School Activities Association has taken notice, saying that girls basketball is none the better for it.
"There is still a concern not only in Colorado, but nationally, that many girls are specializing in volleyball rather than playing both sports," CHSAA assistant commissioner Bert Borgmann wrote in an email to Colorado Community Media.
"I know the NCAA has expressed concern that the best athletes are no longer playing basketball, but focusing full time on volleyball. One of the reasons they have given is that volleyball clubs are demanding full-time participation from the athletes in their clubs, telling them they cannot play other sports. This is concerning to CHSAA, if true, because we believe that students should play multiple sports and have found that many athletes at the higher levels (Olympics, professional, NCAA) were multi-sport athletes. Additionally, from the non-athletic side, they are more rounded students with broader life experiences, and that can translate into a stronger adult."
Going to the club
Club teams are never far from the conversation when it comes to specialization.
These teams offer training and activities most of the year. That helps an athlete develop the skills to have the opportunity to participate at the collegiate or sometimes professional level.
But are clubs hurting high school sports in general, and more specifically, girls basketball
People are lining up on both sides of the debate.
"You can make the exact same argument on the flip side and say, `How many of the girls on the basketball team play volleyball?" said Rob Graham, head volleyballcoach of Ponderosa’s Class 4A state runners-up and owner of the Elevation Volleyball Club. "Or, 'How many girls on the soccer team play volleyball?'
"It’s club everything. It’s club soccer, club softball, club basketball. It’s not volleyball at all. It’s specialization."
Numbers compiled by the National Federation of High School Associations do not show a decline in participation in girls basketball in Colorado. From 2008-14, the number of girls playing the sport in high school has been fairly steady, averaging a little more than 7,000 per year.
But in the south metro area, team rosters show little crossover among volleyball and girls basketball, which could mean schools are seeing some of their best athletes stick to one sport. Among 17 south metro area schools in Colorado Community Media’s coverage area, there were only seven girls listed on both the fall varsity volleyball roster and this winter’s varsity basketball rosters.
Only four schools fielded four girls basketball teams (freshman, sophomore, junior varsity and varsity) and two struggled to put two teams on the floor.
So local coaches, statewide figures or not, do believe fewer girls are giving hoops a shot.
"Participation (in basketball) is for sure down, it’s down like crazy," said Mountain Vista athletic director Pat McCabe. "I don’t think this is just related to basketball, but the establishment of clubs who make kids specialize and go out and put tremendous resources into playing at a super-young level or a super-young age. … Our mission isn’t the same as the clubs. We want kids to participate. We want to use all the resources that sports bring in order to help develop the kids."
Chaparral girls basketball coach Tony Speights reported that the Wolverines have three teams with 30 players. He doesn’t mince words when it comes to the club controversy.
"The chief reason that participation is down is club sports, specifically volleyball," he said.
"These clubs monopolize all of these kids’ time, which doesn’t allow for other sports. I do readily admit that if you are an elite player then maybe (it is beneficial), but how many kids are elite?
"Now, that being said, if you look at a lot of female athletes playing at the pro level, they played multiple sports in high school. I referenced volleyball, because I have lived in a couple of different states, and Colorado is the worst in terms of volleyball players not being able to play basketball."
Some say specialization and club participation are required to rise in a sport’s ranks. Ray Tannenbaum is a coach and director for the Momentum Volleyball Club in Centennial.
Year-round participation in a sport is necessary to become "elite" in today’s competitive environment, largely because of the demands of each sport, he believes.
"I don’t think many of the players can truly handle more than one sport," he said. "I hear the parents of the kids that play soccer, basketball, volleyball, by the time they hit the eighth grade or freshman year in high school, most of these families are saying pick one."
It costs an average of around $3,000 a year to play club volleyball, depending on the level and team involvement. So choosing the right club is important.
"There are some clubs around here that won’t let girls go to prom because they have a tournament the next day," Tannenbaum said. "All of a sudden, these sports are taking away from them actually going out and being a kid. The one thing we do here at Momentum is we realize there has to be a balance. You have to have family life, an educational component, many want a spiritual component and the athletic component of it, and also just letting these kids be kids."
Paityn Hardison and Taynin Abbott are two players for the Momentum club. Both are strictly volleyball players and say they like it that way.
"I found my sport," said Hardison, a freshman who played on the Douglas County volleyball team. "I played basketball for half a season. It’s not my sport. I don’t like all the contact. Volleyball is more of a team sport and not an individual sport."
Abbott is a freshman player at Faith Christian Academy in Arvada.
"When I was growing up, I played five different sports," she said. "I started volleyball when I was in second grade and it was kind of my sport that I fell in love with. Basketball, softball, flag football, tennis and soccer were just not for me."
Variety is the spice?
Ubben, the multi-sport Douglas County High student, wants to play volleyball in college. She admits that not specializing in volleyball could hamper her options.
"It has hurt me already," she said. "You get noticed so much more in club volleyball." But there is research to suggest that specialization is not a better path to competing at an elite level.
According to a Journal of Sports Sciences survey published in 2013, young athletes who competed in three sports at ages 11, 13 and 15 were significantly more likely to compete at an elite national level in their preferred sport than those who specialized in only one.
Dr. John P. DiFiori, team physician for UCLA football and basketball and president of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine from 2013-14, says specialization is rarely the way to go.
"With the exception of select sports such as gymnastics in which the elite competitors are very young, the best data we have would suggest that the odds of achieving elite levels with this method are exceedingly poor," he said in a 2013 AMSSM news release. "In fact, some studies indicate that early specialization is less likely to result in success than participating in several sports as a youth, and then specializing at older ages."
While specialization can be demanding on a teenager, so can being a multi-sport athlete. Ponderosa sophomore Hunter Barker played JV volleyball, basketball, tennis and may go out for track this spring. She also plays volleyball for the Elevation Volleyball Club. She says there a lot of late nights staying up doing homework.
But, she says, "Playing just one sport would just get old. It’s tiring and it’s good to take breaks."
For some athletes, though, focusing on one sport and embracing the club game is the preferred route to getting on the radar of colleges.
Caitie Breaux is a junior volleyball player at Regis University in Denver. The Franktown athlete was a three-sport competitor in middle school before concentrating on volleyball at Ponderosa. She played for the Front Range Volleyball Club.
"I definitely think club is a great (way) for high school athletes to be recognized by colleges," she said. "I know people that have never played club volleyball or club sports in general who have still ended up on college teams, but I definitely think playing club sports gives you more exposure to college athletics."
Graham, the Ponderosa volleyball coach and club owner, is in favor of athletes playing different sports. His two young sons are playing three sports.
However, he knows slowing down the trend to specialize is a tall task.
"If you were to ask most coaches of any sport, we were probably multi-sport athletes growing up," he said. "So we do know the importance of playing multiple sports. We would all say specialization is hurting.
"Who is to blame? I don’t know if you can put your finger on that. I think it’s society, I think it’s parents and I think it’s players. We’re pushing kids to play sports at an earlier age. Parents are expecting them to get scholarships."
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