William Cox grew up in an era before sports specialization had become prevalent.
In Cox’s day, many athletes competed in multiple sports, then enjoyed an offseason.
“There are advantages to playing sports all year,” said Cox, a surgeon and partner at McHenry County Orthopaedics. “You get better. We could have been better athletes in that one sport.”
Yet Cox believes the advantages to competing in multiple sports outweigh those of specializing in one. He shared his thoughts with Prairie Ridge coaches and parents in a speech Wednesday night at the high school auditorium, an event set up by Wolves athletic director Mark Gilbert.
Gilbert, in his first year as Prairie Ridge’s AD and Wellness Division Leader, started the PLAY 2 initiative to promote athletes playing more than one sport. Cox offered several reasons, including physical and mental health, as to why playing multiple sports is beneficial.
“I have yet to meet a high school graduate who regretted playing multiple high school sports,” Cox said. “I have met plenty who regretted playing only one sport. They’re burned out and some may not even play that sport after high school.”
Cox cited a statistic that 50 percent of high school injuries come from overuse. He also says the number of overuse injuries from 2005 through 2010 was four times greater than those in the previous five years.
“Working out is tearing down tissue and the tissue heals, and heals stronger,” Cox explained. “You want to continue this pattern. Overused tears it down further, then you get things like tendinitis and stress fractures.”
Or worse. Baseball pitchers and volleyball players often develop shoulder or elbow problems; soccer players may experience more torn knee ligaments.
Athletes who specialize can use their offseason to refine skills such as throwing, hitting or catching, but Cox thinks cross training can be just as helpful.
“Playing multiple sports keeps it fun,” Cox said. “There can be overuse injuries to the mind – burnout. The neurological system thrives on variety. Variety stimulates the brain and the nervous system. There is less risk of injury.”
One major reason specialization has become popular is that it helps athletes land scholarships, although Cox points out that only 1 percent of high school athletes will get NCAA Division I full rides. And for every one athletic scholarship, there will be 70 high school students who receive academic scholarships.
Prairie Ridge football coach Chris Schremp confirmed the accuracy of Cox’s statements.
“He hit it right on the head,” Schremp said. “Every [college] recruiter has the same list of questions: First is, ‘What are his grades like?’ And second is, ‘Does he play another sport?’ They want guys who play football and wrestle or compete in track and field. With linemen, they want to know if they’re athletic.”
Cox’s message fit right in with what Gilbert’s promoting with pictures around the school of various athletes in one uniform, holding equipment from another sport with the “PLAY 2” logo on them.
Gilbert started his initiative after talking with coaches last summer.
“We noticed there wasn’t a lot of crossover from one sport to the other,” Gilbert said. “The coaches all said, ‘We played multiple sports, why aren’t more kids playing multiple sports?’ We all decided we can do a better job [sharing athletes] and we need to draw attention to it. [Cox] graciously volunteered to come out, it’s a topic he’s passionate about. He sees the result of overuse injuries in his office.”
Gilbert already has Prairie Ridge’s summer calendar finished for various camps and conditioning sessions. It was carefully created to limit overlaps. Sports like football and wrestling, which are good combinations for athletes, were separated.
Gilbert also spoke at Prairie Ridge’s Eighth Grade Night to incoming athletes and parents, again encouraging prospective athletes to consider competing in multiple sports.
“It’s getting kids to use their talents in more than one thing,” Gilbert said. “They need to know it’s OK to be a rock star in one sport, but play a role in another sport. That’s an important lesson, there’s a lot you can learn by doing that.”
Cox also said it typically is not the athletes who choose to specialize, it’s the parents. He also offered a list from survey of athletes which brought everything into perspective.
High school athletes were asked why they wanted to participate in sports. The No. 1 reason was to have fun, while No. 2 was to be with their friends.
“No. 8, Cox said, “was to win.”
• Joe Stevenson is a senior sports writer for the Northwest Herald. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You also can follow him on Twitter @nwh_JoePrepZone.