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The City Journals

Murray HS athletic administrators want the multi-sport athlete to return

Apr 16, 2019 03:28PM ● By Carl Fauver

Murray High School Co-Athletic Directors Lisa White and Keeko Georgelas believe some of their school’s star athletes are missing out on a more fulfilling and well-rounded experience, because they – and their parents – are buying into claims that they need to focus on just one sport, year-round, to reach the next level. (Carl Fauver/City Journals)

By Carl Fauver | [email protected] 

Former multi-sport athletes themselves, Murray High School Co-Athletic Directors Lisa White and Keeko Georgelas are frustrated with the growing trend of young athletes devoting year-round training to a single sport, while missing out on other opportunities to play for additional teams.

“I don’t agree with it and have never agreed with it,” White said. “In my coaching experience, by best athletes were always involved in two or three sports.”

“These kids are missing out on so many opportunities to meet other athletes – on various teams – and to benefit from cross training among different disciplines,” Georgelas added. “I think the kids – and their parents – are being sold a lie, by coaches who can earn more money if they recruit more kids into their sports, to practice and play 11 months out of the year.”

Way back when the film “Rocky” was making Sylvester Stallone a household name, Georgelas was wrapping up a South High School athletic career that included football, basketball and track.

White was involved in even more sports: volleyball, soccer, basketball, track and softball.

That was the trend all the way up through the 1980s, for star athletes to routinely split their attention among different sports. Back then, high school basketball coaches often quietly hoped their school’s football team did not make a lengthy state tournament run.  The sooner they were done on the gridiron, after all, the sooner their attention could shift to the hardwoods. 

Then the athletic landscape began to change. And Georgelas says, not for the better.

“These kids – and their parents – are being sold a line that is simply not true,” he said. “Some coaches – particularly AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) coaches – have a financial interest in getting young athletes to commit to their sport, year-round. So, promises get made, or things are insinuated, that entice kids to specialize. Then they miss out on a more well-rounded high school experience.”

There’s plenty of evidence to back up the Murray athletic directors’ claims – coming from the very top of the coaching profession.

Fifteen years ago, the University of Utah football team became the first so-called “BCS Buster,” when Urban Meyer guided the Utes to their first undefeated season since 1930, and a dominating 35-7 Fiesta Bowl victory. The win launched quarterback Alex Smith into a lengthy NFL career, while carrying Meyer to the University of Florida.

Long a supporter and recruiter of multi-sport athletes, Meyer said in a New York Times article that the debate even divided his own family, when his wife insisted one of their daughters be allowed to specialize only in volleyball in order to strengthen her chances of earning a college scholarship in the sport. Meyer disagreed with the strategy then and still does now in retirement.

“I got upset,” Meyer told the “Times,” about his wife’s insistence their middle daughter concentrate only on volleyball. “I said, ‘She’s going to play basketball,’ but I lost that argument.”

Meyer said his wife told him he didn’t “understand,” which prompted him to retort, “I don’t understand? I’ve been coaching and in athletics my whole life and I don’t understand?”

Quoted in the same December 2016 “Times” article, defending national football champion Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney sings from the same hymnal.

“I want the multisport guy; I just love that,” Swinney told the New York newspaper. “I just think the cross-training, the different types of coaching, the different types of locker rooms, the different environments that you practice in, the different challenges – I think it develops a much more competitive, well-rounded person.”

Georgelas and White say, ‘here, here!’

“There are at least two other big problems when young athletes specialize in a single sport,” Georgelas continued. “First, burnout can be a real problem. I have talked with a lot of kids who have focused on just one sport – and by the time they are seniors in high school they are sick of playing it.  

“The second problem is the increased risk of injury. Obviously, if kids don’t have a little more down time – and a little more practice time, as opposed to playing that many more games – their chances of injury increase.”

Studies have shown, burnout and injury rates are much higher for athletes who devote all their energy and time to one sport, while they are still growing and developing.

“I particularly have a hard time when kids are specializing at young ages – sometimes at the elementary school level,” White added.  “Kids can’t know what their favorite sport is at that age. I just think parents need to give their kids more time to really learn which sports they like best, and which sports they most excel at.”

While Murray High School – like so many others, across the state and nation – are losing many top athletes to single-sport specialization, they are not losing all of them.

MHS juniors Kasen Nielsen and Adelai Moore each hope their athletic skills will earn them scholarships in particular sports – Kasen in football and Adelai in track. But that’s not stopping them from lending their skills to several different Spartan teams.

“Football is definitely what I want to play in college,” Nielsen said. “But I also enjoy track and field events like shot putt, javelin and discus. And this last winter I tried wrestling for the first time, and qualified for state. I did it after coach (Theros) Johnson gave me a list of all the NFL players who also wrestled in high school. It included (2017 NFL Hall of Fame inductee) Ray Lewis.”

At 6-foot-3 and 270 pounds, Nielsen has the size to attract college and even NFL attention. Not long ago, he was briefly pulled out of an MHS class – along with two football teammates – to speak with a Utah State recruiter. His mother, Becky Smith, says the multi-sport approach by Kasen – and his younger brother, Kyler – follows a family tradition.

“Their dad and I played multiple sports and we wanted to let the kids do the same,” she said. “We always wanted our kids to do new things and meet different people. I believe it is helping both of them to become better people. We were never seriously approached by any coaches (seeking to have the boys become single-sport athletes). But if we had been, it’s not something we would have supported.”

Meantime, Adelai Moore splits her Murray Spartan athletic endeavors between cross country, basketball and track.

“My mom and dad ran track and so did my older sisters,” Moore said. “So, I never really thought about not doing cross country and track. I have had some coaches talk to me about playing basketball year-round. But, honestly, it feels like I would get sick of it if I played basketball that much.”

Although she has lettered for the Murray girls’ basketball team for three years – and has been the Spartans’ starting point guard for two – Moore would rather run track at the next level.

“I would prefer to run (in college), even if it is at a smaller school,” she added. “It is a great way to make new friends. I also love running cross country now, because it keeps me in that much better shape for basketball. I don’t have the greatest skills; but speed makes up for a lot of that.”

Adelai’s father, James Moore added, “There are great cross-training benefits (to being a multi-sport athlete). It’s also a good social outlet for her. She’s been able to make a lot of different friends. I like the benefits of her keeping busy with different sports.” 

Clemson coach Swinney had perhaps the most salient closing point on the issue – also in the previously-quoted “New York Times” article – when he said, “Parents should get out of the way and let kids be kids. I think it’ll all work itself out. If you’re good enough (to play any sport, at the college level or beyond), you’re going to be good enough.”