Photo by Izzy Zanone
Junior Emma Linscott pushes off the final wall of her race. Using all her energy to sprint to the finish, Linscott thrusts both of her hands onto the black touch pad, finishing her 100 yard butterfly. After taking a few short breaths, she turns her head to look at the scoreboard.
Her face falls. She has missed her Junior National cut by just 0.3 of a second.
After this race, Linscott knew that she had to make a change for her upcoming junior year if she wanted to sign to swim at a college. During basketball season, Linscott could only train for swimming three days a week, putting her behind other recruits. Although she looked up to her teammates and Coach Lauren Lawrence, Linscott knew the right choice was to quit basketball to focus on swimming.
“I love basketball,” Linscott. “I love playing and having the crowd cheer for you. I love the team aspect and my teammates. We were all so close. But, I knew that I wanted to swim in college, as opposed to basketball.”
Many young athletes go through the same struggle Linscott faced. According to Dr. Kevin Latz, Children’s Mercy Sports Medicine Chief, athletes are now choosing to focus on one sport as opposed to older generations where many people played two or more sports.
This trend in one sport specialization has caused Children’s Mercy to see an increase in overuse injuries, especially in women. In addition to injury, playing one sport can lead to burnout and minimal rest periods, especially when playing at the club level, which is typically more intense than school or recreation teams.
“It’s important for athletes to play multiple sports to develop proper muscle and bone structure,” Latz said. “It’s also important for athletes to take time off and rest to prevent injury.”
However, girls’ swim coach Rob Cole supports athletes who play one sport.
“First, kids try many sports growing up, and they get to the point when they need to focus on one sport to play in college and get scholarships,” Cole said. “For [Linscott], she needed to make a commitment to swimming, instead of spreading herself out, in hopes of a scholarship.”
Latz has been in the practice for twenty years. Just in that time, he has seen the one-sport phenomena take action, and athletes drop from multiple sports to one.
East parent Bill Aliber played three sports as a kid: hockey, lacrosse and football. He then went on to play lacrosse and football at Brown University, a feat almost unheard of even in that time, at the collegiate.
“When I was a kid, everyone played two or more sports [at the high school level],” Aliber said. “However, there were not very many folks that played two sports [at Brown],” In fact, I can only think of a handful that I knew, even in that time where multi sport athletes were much more common than they are today.”
A study published by the NCAA in April 2016 revealed that 90 percent of athletes surveyed started specializing – playing one sport for 10 or 11 months out of a year – before the age of 12.
“It’s really a shame,” Latz said. “Especially when it’s coaches forcing kids to quit multiple sports to focus on one.”
Although Linscott’s coaches did want her to quit basketball, the demand of her rigorous classes also played a large role in her decision.
“My grades definitely suffered during basketball season,” said Linscott. “I would drop classes to play more sports if I could, but unfortunately, that’s not an option.”
As for the effects of specializing, studies are clear that athletes are more likely to become injured the earlier they specialize, according to Latz. Specifically with swimming, Latz commonly sees women swimmers who develop major shoulder injuries from overuse and repetition of the same motion.
“Going from one sport to another to another is a far safer thing to do than specializing,” Latz said. “But, if you have to specialize, the best thing to do is take some time to let your body rest and recover.”
Linscott is taking steps to prevent injury, including doing strength training with a trainer and stretching often. As for burning out, Linscott doesn’t see that happening in the future.
“With my coach, we train ultra short, so we don’t ever do any long or boring sets, which keeps the practice interesting,” Linscott said. “Plus, I love my teammates. We spend so much time together that we are one big family, and I wouldn’t change that for anything.”