Keep the plate full

Sports specialization is rarely addition by subtraction

Messenger photo by Britt Kudla

Pocahontas Area's Elle Ruffridge and Grace Meyer were not only all-state basketball players, but cross country runners and track team members. Meyer also played softball at PAC.

Messenger photo by Britt Kudla Pocahontas Area's Elle Ruffridge and Grace Meyer were not only all-state basketball players, but cross country runners and track team members. Meyer also played softball at PAC.

I was a run-of-the-mill high school baseball player some 20 years ago, trying my best to hone my craft and find a competitive edge.

Somewhere along the line — I guess specifically during the fall months of my junior year — I got the bright idea that if I just stopped playing basketball and concentrated more on becoming a better pitcher in the winter months, I would … well … become a better pitcher.

So I quit on hoops. Stopped cold turkey. Had played it my whole life. Liked it but didn’t love it, and wasn’t particularly good at it, but I had convinced my 17-year-old self that focusing on baseball was the way to go.

I spent the better part of the next two offseasons in the weight room, training for summers on the diamond. Did I get bigger and stronger? Yes. Was I more physically prepared for baseball? Yes.

There were unintended side effects to my decision, though. Without realizing it, I had used the live action of basketball to stay mentally focused. Contrary to what some believe, there is no substitute for actual practices and competitions. Spending the winter lifting and running on my own or with friends was a poor substitute for being an in-season athlete.

While I was defining my baseball muscles, I fell out of shape otherwise. As a pitcher, I had worked my arm without rest or pace. As a result, I found myself more fatigued in the summer than I ever had been before. I hit a wall in late-June because I hadn’t put baseball on the shelf for a while in late-January.

More than anything else, though, I stopped having fun with baseball. I missed the change of seasons. I should have given football a chance. I watched basketball games from the stands and longed to be with my friends and teammates.

Not only did baseball feel like work, but I also started to resent it. Our team did well during my junior and senior year — qualifying for state both times — but I had lost my passion, lost my focus, and eventually, lost my future in the game I once loved.

Why mention all of this now? I see more kids — and families — taking an all-too-familiar route. Before they even reach their teenage years, many young boys and girls are already focusing on one sport and jettisoning all the others.

Notice I didn’t label this a ”mistake,” per se. My story isn’t everyone’s story. Some athletes may not just enjoy specializing, but also flourish in doing so. This isn’t a one-size-fits all topic.

Athletes, parents and coaches should give serious thought to the aforementioned consequences, though. My struggles — with physical and emotional letdown, burnout, regret and loss of perspective — are very common among kids who narrow their scope during a time when it should be broadened.

A college scholarship wasn’t ever on my personal radar back in the day, but I will speak as a Sports Editor to those who seek playing time at the next level: college coaches appreciate an assorted athletic portfolio. Preps commonly make the mistake of thinking otherwise. In reality, JUCOs and universities love recruiting students who have shown the ability to excel in multiple arenas, learning valuable lessons of adversity through diversity along the way.

I had a conversation recently with Hall of Fame West Des Moines Valley softball coach Tom Bakey about this very subject. Valley is the biggest school in the state. It has the money, resources and numbers that most athletic departments could only dream of at their disposal.

Yet Bakey’s eyes lit up when it came to the dangers and pitfalls of sports specialization at the high school level. He mentioned all-state Valley quarterback Rocky Lombardi, the Michigan State University grid recruit who was also a star wrestler, track team member and ”a scratch golfer” for good measure in his spare time. He also credited his program’s recent success to ”low blood pressure” standouts Jackie Feldt, Jamie Feldt and Alex Honnold, who cut their teeth on tense situations as regulars on the school’s state basketball championship squad.

Bakey’s message was clear: every athletic department, regardless of size or stature, should be encouraging its kids to play as many sports as possible. He doesn’t want his softball players turning their sport into a 365-day grind, and we shouldn’t with our schools and programs, either.

I’m speaking retrospectively now with the benefit of time and age. It’s taken plenty of self-reflection to realize I made a mistake in passing on the one opportunity I had to be a high school athlete — not just a high school baseball player.

If you’re wavering now, don’t be the ignorant kid that I was. Your ”main” sport can wait. Your other coaches can wait. You athletic future can wait.

Take advantage of the opportunities in front of you, and make the most of these rare days in life where ”specializing” isn’t actually important yet at all.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, by e-mail at sports@messengernews.net, or on Twitter @MessengerSports.

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