Editor’s note: This is part one in a two-part series on the topic of specialization versus playing multiple sports at high school and lower levels. See part two on the challenges multisport athletes face in Friday’s issue of the Echo Press.

Drew Fearing spent days worrying about a decision that he knew would affect more than just himself the summer before his senior year at Osakis High School.

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Fearing played baseball, basketball and football, but a broken fibula in football the fall of his junior year caused him to reevaluate some things.

Baseball was always his first love. It’s the sport that led to a scholarship offer to play at the Division I level for North Dakota State University.

Was risking another injury in football his senior season worth it when his future was in baseball? It was a decision that he knew would let down coaches and teammates if the answer was no.

“It was a lot of sleepless nights,” Fearing said. “I stayed up thinking about it. One day I was like I’m going to play football, the next day I wasn’t. It was back and forth, and I think in the long run I made the right decision.”

He eventually told Osakis football coach Bill Infanger that he was going to walk away. Fearing called it one of the tougher decisions he has ever had to make.

The extra time in the fall allowed him to focus on playing baseball at the next level – particularly by getting bigger in the weight room. Fearing has started 16 games at shortstop as a true freshman for the Bison, so it is hard for him to second guess his decision to quit football. He still pauses for a second when thinking back.

“Where I am right now, I don’t have any regrets,” Fearing said. “During the season if you would have asked me that question, I think I would have told you I did have regrets and I really missed it.”

SPECIALIZATION AT THE LOCAL LEVEL

Fearing is like a lot of athletes who are faced with these kinds of decisions, from high school down to the youth levels.

He never specialized in one sport, but his passion will always be on the diamond. He played four years in the Minnesota Blizzard baseball program out of Vadnais Heights, where he says he started playing games in the fall and competed in tournaments around the country through February or March.

Fearing balanced his schedule and still played basketball his senior year, but there are athletes all over the country who feel the need to specialize.

In every sport, there are opportunities to focus on one activity and train year-round from a young age. There is also some pressure to do so thinking that it’s necessary to become great at their craft.   

“We see it,” Alexandria football and boys track and field coach Mike Empting said of specialization. “I don’t know if it’s as bad in Alexandria as it is the closer you get to the Cities and other big schools. We’re a bigger school, but we aren’t a big school. I really think we need our kids out. We need them involved in school activities in order for those activities to be successful.”

INJURY RISKS

Scott Scholl sees the effects specializing can have on a young athlete’s body almost every day.

Scholl is a certified athletic trainer and PEAK Performance coordinator through Heartland Orthopedic Specialists in Alexandria. Their athletic trainers reach more than 600 athletes through local schools.

Scholl says that of all the injuries they see, probably 80 percent are overuse injuries, which are the result of repetitive micro-trauma to the tendons, bones and joints.

“A lot of studies show that young athletes who participate in a variety of sports have fewer injuries than those who specialize before puberty,” Scholl said. “That is the big thing here is before puberty when specialization does lead to overuse injuries. We’re seeing this all the way to 6, 7, 8 years old of overuse already. That leads all the way up to that 16-17 year old that might not have even reached their full growth plates at that point.”

Scholl emphasizes injury prevention through his work by reaching out to coaches and athletes to teach proper training techniques. The key, he says, is creating balance through the use of different muscle groups.

“What we want them to be are multi-directional athletes,” he said. “What we’re finding is because they’re specializing early, they’re becoming more imbalanced in their body, which is leading toward that overuse injury.”

SUCCESS THROUGH MULTIPLE SPORTS

A school like Osakis knows all about the benefits of having multisport athletes when it comes to finding success.

With a current enrollment of 243 students in grades nine through 12, coaches say they need their best athletes to play almost every season to be successful. Osakis is getting that from its female athletes.

The Silverstreaks have had winning teams across the board in their girls programs recently. Volleyball and basketball each had 21-win seasons this school year.

Osakis golf is coming off a fifth-place finish at the Class AA state tournament in 2014. The track and field team was fourth at state and is loaded with athletes again this spring. Many of Osakis’ top contributors to this success are standouts through each season.

“I think you can get kind of burned out in one sport and also when you’re going to another sport, you’re still competing, using different muscles, doing different activities,” Osakis volleyball coach Kirsten Wessel said. “I think they’re still becoming better volleyball players in basketball, track, softball, whatever it is, so I like that they’re out for other sports.”

A lot of coaches share that philosophy. Empting strongly encourages his athletes to compete in an activity during every season.

The benefits are endless, he says. Kids become better overall athletes. They reduce the risk of injury and burning out in one sport. He also sees the life lessons they get by having pride in competing for their school and learning from different coaches.

“There are so many different things to be learned across all these different sports,” Empting said. “The same way you want a child to get a well-rounded education with math and social, sciences and arts; I view it as a physical educator as having a well-rounded physical education as well; learning different skill sets, being coached in different ways.”

COLLEGE COACHES RECRUITING

Concordia College football coach Terry Horan says there is no question that he and his colleagues at the Division III level share that mindset.

Horan, now in his 15th season as the head coach of the Cobbers, has gone 24-6 the last three years and recruits this area hard. His time spent searching for the next great player is not limited to the fall.

“I love seeing a football player when I’m recruiting them in the winter,” Horan said. “I love watching them playing basketball and hockey. I watch a lot of things. How’s their athletic ability? How do they move? How are they as a teammate? Sometimes you can see a lot more on a basketball court than on a field.”

Horan added that most kids are still developing in high school and might not even know what their best sport could be yet.

Alexandria senior Parker Revering is a dedicated three-sport athlete in football, hockey and baseball and says it is one of the first things college coaches ask him about during the recruiting process.

Revering hopes to have a future on the ice with tryouts at the junior hockey level set for this summer. He also talked to quite a few college programs for baseball.

“All the coaches I have talked to in any sport, it’s all about how many sports do you play?” Revering said. “They just love it. You’re using all different kinds of muscles, learning tons of life lessons. There’s a lot of great things about it.”

Revering has loved all three of his sports from a young age and says he never had a desire to quit any of them.

With that comes its own set of challenges for athletes who are committed to succeeding at multiple activities.