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Sports specialization trend costs teens, schools

Of the 54 football players at Serra-San Mateo, 39 play another sport. Head coach Patrick Walsh doesn’t like that.

He wishes more of them would play a second sport.

“I hate specialization,” he said. “It makes no sense, in my opinion.”

The trend toward specialization in youth sports, in which athletes play one sport year-round for expensive travel and club teams, has had a significant impact on traditional high school programs, which have declined in popularity and participation. The specialization trend has hurt baseball at Serra-San Mateo, and it “definitely” has hurt his football program, Walsh said. Club sports have “devoured” high school soccer, he said.

“A lot of kids feel they have to play 70 baseball games in a summer or play basketball for an AAU team,” Walsh said. “Our preseason is the summer. We’ve had a lot of very good athletes quit football because of that.”

Specialization didn’t wreak as much havoc on head coach Ken Peralta’s program at Marin Catholic-Kentfield for seven years before he moved to Sacred Heart Cathedral this year.

“A good, strong program, it’s not going to affect that much,” he said, “but it’s really a disservice to the kids. It’s sad. High school sports are about building the whole person. This cuts off one of the arms.”

Sue Phillips, who has one of the most successful girls basketball programs in Northern California at Mitty-San Jose, thinks every high school would benefit from having more multi-sport athletes.

“That’s not what’s happening,” she said. “It’s unfortunate, and the kids are missing out.”

Kids less versatile

Walsh and Peralta say they feel sorry for athletes who don’t play more than one sport in high school. When a youngster focuses on one sport year-round, they say, it becomes a job, not a pastime. It’s also not healthy physiologically to use the same muscles all the time, they say.

Those who specialize miss a chance to form friendships with a different group of students, according to all three coaches. The kids don’t get the life lessons another coaching staff can impart. They might be exercising in the offseason, but they’re not competing.

Athletes’ grades are often higher in-season, many coaches say, because students are forced to budget their time better. Because of practices and games, they have little or no time to waste. What’s more, they know that if they fail to pass muster academically, they won’t play. The more time they spend in season, the better.

The Lamorinda (Lafayette-Moraga-Orinda) area, where Bob Wilson worked as Campolindo athletic director before retiring this year, is known for its strong, sometimes feverish, parental involvement in academics and athletics. Parents sometimes put pressure on athletes of average talent to specialize because “their kids are on the bubble,” Wilson said. That is, they’re on the margin of making a roster or getting regular playing time.

“We emphasize that’s not what we want. We encourage kids to go out for as many sports as you can. Leave the door open. That’s one reason we were successful” in many sports, he said.

The call to specialize

Some high school coaches encourage specialization. They might think the success of their programs, and their jobs, depends on kids maximizing skills in their sport.

The athletes most susceptible to the call to specialize are not stars but middle-of-the-road players, according to Miramonte-Orinda girls basketball coach Kelly Sopak.

“A lot of them are forced to choose between basketball and volleyball so early that they don’t know which is their best sport or which makes her happiest,” he said. “And those kids are the heartbeat of programs. Those kids are the ones that give you championships. From my vantage point, those are the kids we’re losing.”

Specialization can be both a blessing and a curse, according to Sue Dvorak, the girls’ volleyball coach at Presentation-San Jose.

“The game is better because we’re getting athletes (who choose volleyball) younger,” she said. “But we’re getting more injuries, overuse injuries. They’re playing all year long. They’re not giving their bodies a break.”

Volleyball players are entering high school with better skills than players had nine years ago, when she became coach, Dvorak said. As a result, more freshman girls make the junior varsity, and more sophomores make the varsity.

For girls in high school or middle school, playing both volleyball and basketball isn’t merely a case of playing two seasons and then enjoying the rest of the year, she notes. There’s club play on top of all that, so it’s a year-round proposition.

“A lot of the pressure for the volleyball girls is juggling their time with the club season,” Dvorak said. “During the basketball season, the girls are trying to practice five days a week, plus spending four hours a week on club volleyball. Then a club volleyball tournament may run all day, some for three days.”

Girls are forced in eighth or ninth grade to decide whether or not to take on that load, she said.

Pressure from others

Although he’s also opposed to specialization, longtime Monte Vista-Danville baseball coach Bill Piona said the trend has evened out the talent on the high school level.

“It’s harder to outcoach other teams because the kids have access to personal coaches,” he said. “There’s all these people who are hitting and pitching coaches. I work in an area where people have the money to do that.”

The specialization trend started in the 1990s, he said. Previously, a half-dozen of his 20 baseball players also played football. Now, it’s two.

Specialization sometimes makes sense. Three of Piona’s best players happened to be big-time college football prospects: Kyle Wright (Miami), Drew McAllister (USC) and Brett Nottingham (Stanford/Columbia).

“They were being recruited as quarterbacks and decided not to play baseball so they could spend more time preparing for football,” he said. “It was more than just the scholarships. They had to prepare to run plays.”

Who’s driving the need to specialize? Sometimes, it’s a coach with a dominant personality. “One percent of it comes from kids,” Serra’s Walsh said. “It’s mostly from parents.”

At a time when college costs are soaring, it’s understandable that parents hope their offspring land athletic scholarships, as slim as that possibility might be.

“People think, ‘Unless I send my kids to these club sports, it’s akin to not loving them as much as somebody who does,’ ” Sacred Heart’s Peralta said. He chalks the pressure up to “parents being knuckleheads.”

AAU basketball coaches steer kids from football and other sports by holding out athletic scholarships as a carrot. “Outside of having the (college) coach’s phone number,” he said, “they don’t know college sports.”

The bigger picture

Walsh played football and baseball at De La Salle-Concord and San Jose State before spending his senior year playing baseball at Texas after his football eligibility was done. He won’t even “have the conversation” with his son William, 8, about specializing until he’s a high school junior.

“I see sports as an opportunity to help my son become a healthier, better-adjusted citizen in the world,” Walsh said. “He has a .0001 percent chance of getting a football scholarship. There’s a lot more academic money out there than athletic money.”

What should parents have their kids do? Walsh has an idea that might sound strange coming from a very successful football coach:

“Let a kid be a kid. Let him climb a tree or sit out in the backyard and talk.”


Editor’s note

Youth sports have changed dramatically over the years, with more athletes specializing in one sport from an early age. In a three-part series, The Chronicle explores the impacts of specialization in youth sports.

Wednesday: Increase in injuries

Thursday: The high cost

— Friday: Impact on high schools

Read the entire package of stories at www.SFChronicle.com.

1 million

U.S. boys playing high school football in 2007


Decrease in U.S. boys playing high school football from 2007 to 2012


U.S. boys playing high school basketball in 2007


Decrease in U.S. boys playing high school basketball from 2007 to 2012

Source: National Federation of State High School Associations


Decrease in California boys playing high school football in past five years


Decrease in California girls playing high school basketball in past five years


Increase in California girls playing high school volleyball in past five years


Increase in U.S. of high school boys swimmers/divers in past five years (easily the fastest-growing boys sport)


Increase in U.S. of high school girls cross-country runners in past five years (the fastest-growing girls sport)

Source: National Federation of State High School Associations

Tom FitzGerald is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: tfitzgerald@sfchronicle.com

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