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Specialization in youth sports part two: For some, playing multiple sports advantageous

Note to readers: This is the second story in a three-part series focusing on specialization in youth sports and the decline in the number of multisport athletes in high school.

A few times each week, when Emily Bemis’ teammates were packing their basketball shoes to go home after one of coach Ben Bates’ notoriously difficult DeKalb basketball practices, the 2011 Daily Chronicle Volleyball Player of the Year would drive to a small gym outside Geneva. There, she’d practice with the Kane County Juniors volleyball club for a few hours before finally making the trek back to DeKalb.

For most NCAA Division I college volleyball recruits, high school basketball is a workload that’s just too much to take on with the constant camps, games and practices. But Bemis didn’t see it that way.

“It ended up being six hours, five hours on certain days. It was a long day,” said Bemis, who earned a scholarship to the University of Arizona, but transferred after her freshman year. “I kind of liked it because I feel like it made me a better athlete all around instead of focusing on just one sport, it kind of gives you a break.”

Club sports and early recruiting have exploded over the past few decades, and many elite high school athletes feel pressured to choose one sport. Although specialization is deemed necessary by many athletes and coaches, multisport athletes find plenty of physical, social and mental benefits in their diverse athletic careers.

Brian Sisler, a former three-sport athlete at DeKalb, said he thinks his high school athletic experience made him the athlete and leader he is today. Quitting one sport would have been a recipe for remorse for the Northern Illinois shortstop.

“I don’t regret my decision at all,” the 2011-12 Daily Chronicle Male Athlete of the Year said. “When I talk to people who quit basketball or they quit a certain sport, I talk to them now when they’re done with high school sports and they all say, ‘Oh, I wish I would’ve stuck with that.’ ”

• • •

Base runners only turn left. Hitters usually only swing one way. Pitchers only work one arm.

NIU baseball coach Ed Mathey says the physical benefits of playing multiple sports are obvious, and that’s just one of the reasons he prefers recruiting multisport athletes.

“You find a lot of injuries occur when one side of the body is stronger than the other half of the body,” Mathey said. “I think guys that tend to be more balanced – right side, left side, top half, lower half, front half, back half – tend to hold up better.”

While some high school players spend ample time in a batting cage over the winter months and others play game after game for their travel teams, Mathey likes to go after recruits who have the highest ceiling – the more athletic kids who haven’t tapped their potential.

“I think [college coaches] like multi-sport guys,” Mathey said. “They like guys who see things from different perspectives. Let’s say a guy plays basketball, he’s got different lateral quickness abilities than baseball guys do, and that plays out a lot of ways in baseball that you can’t train in baseball.”

NIU women’s soccer coach John Ross rarely comes across multi-sport athletes when scouting, but he knows soccer players who play basketball are likely to be more athletic, which can be an indicator of future success.

“We always say basketball is a good crossover sport because there are a lot of good athletes playing basketball,” Ross said. “The more athletic you are, the easier it is for you to play two sports.”

Alhough Bemis missed out on some time on the volleyball court and a few chances at college exposure, her legs told her that playing basketball made her better.

“I think it worked different muscles, which I noticed because I was always sore after volleyball, no matter how much volleyball I did,” Bemis said. “I think overall it helped me become a better athlete.”

• • •

Sisler knew baseball would be his sport of the future when the DeKalb coaches told him he’d garnered interest from college coaches after his sophomore year.

“They told me that I had the most potential in baseball and I listened to that a little bit,” said Sisler, who also was a point guard on the basketball team and a quarterback on the football team. “They knew I could play at the highest level in baseball rather than the other sports because I was a little too slow and a little too small for football and basketball.”

At that moment, Sisler easily could have decided to focus on baseball, and few would have faulted him. But he didn’t, and he thinks he benefitted from the decision.

“Every coach that I spoke to, they all loved the fact that I was a multi-sport athlete,” Sisler said. “Coach Mathey told me that that was one of the reasons [he recruited me]. … It really helps as far as leadership qualities go because you’re dealing with different types of people.”

Mathey noticed Sisler was different from some of his fellow freshmen when he arrived on campus last year. Sisler seemed to fit in with his older teammates right away, and Mathey suspects that Sisler’s experience as a quarterback and a point guard at DeKalb helped him become well-adjusted.

“When you’re playing three sports, you become a little more well-rounded in terms of being able to deal with different types of personalities,” Mathey said. “Brian was one of those guys that, immediately when he came into the program, just got along with everybody, the seniors and the upperclassmen liked him right away.”

• • •

Dave Dudzinski considered quitting baseball. The Kaneland alum, who plays basketball for Holy Cross, had to make plenty of compromises during the spring, when he’d regularly drive to Naperville after baseball games to go to AAU basketball practice.

But every time he took the baseball field, he noticed, he had fun. So he stuck out the busy spring and played both sports for four years to the surprise of college coaches.

“It was just so much fun to be out there with some of my best friends on the baseball field,” he said. “I think one thing high school kids need to realize is that if you like something, you don’t have to focus only on it. You can play other sports and have fun. You have to work on your speed, your fitness and get stronger, and that’s stuff that translates across sports.”

The benefits of specialization aren’t lost on DeKalb junior running back Dre Brown, who made the difficult decision to sit out the basketball season last year as his college football recruitment heated up.

But Brown, who ran track during his freshman and sophomore years, remembers the joy of playing a sport just for fun. So after picking up several scholarship offers and interest from BCS schools across the country, he’s decided to consider playing basketball this year.

“Now that I’m an upperclassman, I can do basketball or fun things because I have colleges looking at me for football,” Brown said.

If his high school career is anything like Bemis’, he won’t regret taking that time to have fun with a sport in high school when he solely focuses on football at a Division I college.

Bemis realized the extent to which she missed basketball last year when the Southwestern fall turned into winter.

“I enjoyed it because it gave me a break from just doing constant volleyball, which is what really hits me now because I’m always doing volleyball and I’m not in basketball,” Bemis said. “It was nice to have another sport. ... It lets you kind of focus on something fun in athletics.”

Many athletes have become so absorbed in nabbing scholarship offers that fun can take a back seat to success in high school sports.

“The cycle of life has changed from being a kid and then being an athlete,” former DeKalb volleyball coach Stephanie Gooden said. “Now I’ve got to be an athlete and then I’ll think about being a kid when I have time.”

Sisler can’t deny the reality that some of his NIU teammates improved from playing club baseball. He knows that specialization in baseball can help raise a batting average or attract the eyes of a few college coaches.

But the fundamental reason Sisler plays sports in the first place wasn’t about gaining a scholarship, winning a certain amount of games or even hitting for a particular average.

“I never once thought about quitting the other two just to specialize in one,” he said. “I think the problem now is that a lot of people are so worried or caught up in getting a scholarship in that one sport, and I think a lot of the time they miss the big picture of it all, which is to go out there and have fun and enjoy the opportunity that you’ve been given.”

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