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Jim Brown #44 (and should have been the original #22!)

Recruits – Think Twice About Specializing

7 - Published December 1, 2010 by in High School, Training

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving.  I usually spend Turkey Day with 50 plus extended relatives on my Mom’s side at a neutral site in New Hampshire or Mass.  I didn’t make it back this year, but my Mom did.  She called after dinner to tell me how her older sister was boasting to her about how her oldest grandson (my cousin’s first boy) is getting sooo into lacrosse, and as a result the demands of the game have required him to drop all of his other sports and focus exclusively on lacrosse all seasons of the year.  He is in 8th grade.

This touches upon something that has begun to happen in our sport that gets me burning like Jim Rome: Specialization in Sports at a Young Age.  Parents and young athletes need to wake up on this one, and maybe this ought to be addressed at the youth and club level more seriously before it gets out of control.

I know specialization at a young age is necessary to be successful in some sports, but lacrosse is not one of them.  As a matter of fact, it is actually counterproductive to specialize in lacrosse at a young age and will put a player at a disadvantage not just athletically, but also in the recruiting process.

Recent trends show that when young athletes focus too heavily on just one sport they experience increased rates of injuries and other physiological issues.  Check this recent Boston Globe article titled Teens training too hard, too often.  Here it is straight from the horse’s mouth (the horse being the PT who treats the athletes in the article):

“Specializing in one sport at a young age often leads to overuse injuries … because the athlete is repeating the same motion over and over again in the same area of the body, leaving him or her more vulnerable to degenerative joint problems.”

What is the thought process behind the decision to specialize in lacrosse before college?  If lacrosse is your only sport, fine, but to drop other sports so you can focus on lacrosse?    “Come on Man!”

Anyone who knows the sport of lacrosse and is aligned with the best interest of a kid would never tell them to quit their other sports to focus on lacrosse.  I love the growth of the game, the emergence of club teams and all of the options to play at a competitive level all seasons of the year.  I would’ve loved that opportunity.  But at the same time, I seriously hope club coaches aren’t telling kids that they need to stop playing football or soccer if they want to be good at lacrosse, and they need to instead play on the club’s fall ball team or in the club’s box league.

If this advice is not coming from the club coaches where is it coming from?  Are parents reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” and think their child needs 10,000 hours of lacrosse before college to be a successful player?  Or did they read the other book, Geoff Colvin’s “Talent is Overrated”, and think their child needs to implement “deliberate practice” into their lacrosse just as Tiger Woods did with golf at a young age?

A rule of thumb is that specialization is often necessary in individual sports, and should be avoided in team sports.  Golf is one of those sports where if you want to compete at the highest level, you need to eat, breathe and sleep golf early in your life (just like Tiger did).  This is true for most other individual sports such as gymnastics, swimming, tennis, ski racing, cycling, figure skating, etc.  There are obviously exceptions to this rule (i.e. Jeremy Bloom was an Olympic freestyle skier and also went to the NFL).

Lacrosse is not an individual sport; it is a team sport.  Young players should work on their stick skills and shooting in their free time all year.  Afternoon hours during the fall and winter sports seasons should be spent working on the intangibles, such as being a great teammate, leadership, and most importantly, competing at a high level as often as possible.

Matt Danowski said it best last week in his Fireside Chat with Lax All Stars when he talked about his experience playing highschool football.  He said:

I was really lucky in the sense that I grew up with a core group of friends that wanted to excel in a number of sports, not just lacrosse.  We all played football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and lacrosse in the spring.  It wasn’t like it is now with kids playing lacrosse year round as their only sport, and I attribute a lot of our success to playing those other sports together.  There’s no way you can compare a lacrosse fall tournament to being in a locker room during halftime of a championship football game, and that bond that we shared through times like those made us better on the lacrosse field.

Matt Danowski isn’t the only male pro-athlete who attributes part of his success to his experience in other sports.  Have you seen the highlight clips of Iverson dominating as a QB in high school football in Hampton, VA?  If not, I’ll do you a favor, check it out:

Fun Fact: Did you know that Iverson played safety for 1 game, and in his one and only game at safety he had 7 picks, and set the state record for INTs in a game?  I’d bet taking licks in football made taking a charge in basketball a lot less daunting for AI.

Lebron James was also an all-state wideout in football (how scary would Lebron be as a receiver in the NFL?).  My favorite example of a multi-sport athlete is the best football player ever, and also the best athlete ever: Jim Brown.  Apparently Jim Brown could’ve gone pro in 5 sports: football, basketball, baseball, track and boxing (they didn’t have pro lax back then, but he is debatably the best laxer ever).

Fun fact: Brown didn’t play baseball at Syracuse, but he could have. He threw two no-hitters in high school, and the Yankees offered him $150,000 to play for them.

I also like the story about how Randy Moss and Jason Williams were best friends in high school in Huntington, WV and how Randy was always on the receiving end of J-Will’s alley-oops.

There are tons of examples of great athletes who excelled in more than one sport:

• Patrick Kearney – NFL D. End – played lax at Taft and UVA;

• Brendan Shanahan – NHL Legend and Hockey Triple Gold Club member – dabbled in the NLL when the NHL was on strike;

• Herschel Walker – Heisman winner and NFL All-Pro running back – was an Olympic Bobsledder and currently is a professional MMA fighter (need I go on and mention Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson?).

• Dave Winfield – Baseball Hall of Famer, was drafted professionally in baseball, basketball and football coming out of the University of Minnesota after having led the hoops team to a Big Ten Championship and the baseball team to the College World Series.

I know the counter argument to this: “but Dave, these guys were all freak athletes, and some athletes need to spend more time on lacrosse just to compete with guys like that!”   You’re not hearing what I’m saying: these guys are/were better at their sport because they developed their athletic ability by competing in other sports.  And, yes these guys are all physical specimens, which is why they are recognizable examples, as opposed to the multi-sport star in each of your local communities.

As far as the recruiting process goes, college coaches love players who excel in other sports.  Alternatively, coaches are turned off when they hear that a potential recruit has quit their fall or winter sport to focus on lacrosse.  Dom Starsia (UVA Men’s Head Coach) told ESPN Rise:

To young athletes I am always saying, ‘You learn to play lacrosse team defense and team offense on a football field, a soccer field, a basketball court,’ etc… I wince when a young athlete tells me that he is giving up football to concentrate on lacrosse. There is nothing you can do on your own that would be of greater advantage to your athletic development as a lacrosse player than going to football practice everyday.

A college coach won’t care if a recruit’s club team beat a team from Long Island at Champ Camp, but they will be impressed if that kid played a role on the state championship football team (even if it was class C).  And when that recruit matriculates to college, what do you think he’ll be doing to stay in shape during fall ball? – He’ll be playing pickup basketball, soccer, and football.

………………………………….

We have an unspoken rule of not giving unsolicited advice in my family, so I’m not saying anything to my cousin on this one.  But I’m secretly hoping that he gets tired of fall ball and tells his dad about how much he misses lacing up the hockey skates and getting out on the ice.

I also hope there will be a strong backlash against specialization in lacrosse, and recruits and their parents start to discover the benefits of being a multi-sport athlete for as long as possible.  And I hope adults will remind eachother why their kids are playing sports in the first place: to have fun.

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