Valparaiso University men's basketball coach Matt Lottich was the featured speaker at last week’s Sportsmanship Dinner, and the message he had for the 450-plus athletes there was, perhaps, the best I have heard in all my years of attending.
However, as well as his words resonated with his audience, I hope the story of his own career connected just as deeply, not only with the players in attendance, but with coaches and parents, too.
The typical college basketball fan will remember Lottich as a star on the 1999-2000 Stanford team that spent much of the year rated number one. He would go on to an eight-year professional career, mostly in Asia, before shifting to coaching.
What most probably don’t know is that, on the way to becoming a full-time basketball player, Lottich was a genuine three-sport star at New Trier High School in Illinois. As a senior, he quarterbacked the Trevians to a conference crown by throwing for 19 touchdowns and more than 2,000 yards. After setting the school’s all-time basketball scoring record, he was the most valuable player on a state championship baseball team.
A special high school career, without specialization.
Not sold on a sole story and still convinced specialization — focusing on one sport — is preferable? Two recent medical studies and one literature review should convince you otherwise.
One study was conducted at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia and presented in July at the American Society for Sports Medicine’s annual meeting. Surveying high school, college, and professional athletes, the TJU researchers found the average collegian or pro didn’t “specialize” until between ages 14 and 15. Meanwhile the majority of the high schoolers had started specializing nearly two years earlier. The survey also found that more than three quarters of the pros would recommend against early sports specialization.
Also in July, a study out of the University of Wisconsin and published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine looked at lower extremity injury rates among over 1,500 athletes from 29 high schools. The results were stunning. Those who specialized in one sport were nearly twice as likely to suffer a leg injury than those who did not.
The literature review, published in 2015 in the journal Orthopedic Clinics of North America, explained why.
“The adolescent growth spurt is a critical time for athletic specialization. During this period, there exists high risk of injury, particularly involving the (growth plates),” wrote the authors. “The unique anatomy and physiology of the growing athlete places them (sic) at a baseline injury risk, which is multiplied by engaging in repetitive, intense activity that can occur with sports specialization.”
Entitled “Consequences of Single Sport Specialization in the Pediatric and Adolescent Athlete,” the article also explained why the multi-sport athlete is less likely to get hurt, claiming “diversified sport training in early and middle adolescence may better foster elite athletic potential than specialization owing to a more positive transfer of skills.”
Not interested in science? How about 30 of 32 first-round picks in last year’s NFL draft being multi-sport athletes in high school?
Despite this readily available information, parents continue to see specialization delivering the holy grails of college scholarship, Olympic gold and/or professional contract.
That singular financial focus — win-at-all-costs determination — is what gave rise to an environment that allowed the now-closed Karolyi Ranch and its denizens to flourish in the world of gymnastics.