For most high school volleyball fans, the start of another exciting season is only weeks away.
It’s a new beginning, a welcome beginning after an offseason that has dragged along for more than nine months.
But for many of the athletes, recess has been short. Volleyball is practically a year-round activity for some. After their Junior Olympic programs finish in June, summer glides by swiftly. By mid-August, volleyball players are back on the gymnasium floor bumping, serving and spiking -- some of them, perhaps, wondering what they may have missed.
Has volleyball become too specialized? It’s a topic where every expert, it seems, has an opinion.
Stacie Busse-Remme, who played her high school volleyball in Luverne, played and coached at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, S.D., and now coaches in Luverne, prefers multi-sport athletes to those who prefer to concentrate on just one sport.
“We always loved two- to three-sport athletes,” Busse-Remme recalls from her college days. “Almost every year we’d have a kid drop out, saying, ‘I’ve had it.’”
To the layman, it’s called burnout.
“By the time you get to college, that sport truly rules your life,” Busse-Remme explained.
Veteran Windom Area VB coach Ron Wendorff prefers well-rounded athletes, too, but he understands some players’ desire to join elite teams in the offseason. Well aware of the drawbacks of specialization, he admits there can be real benefits.
The Windom Junior Olympic program is geared so that players don’t travel long distances, but for some girls, Wendorff says, that’s part of the fun. It can be quite a thrill for southwest Minnesota athletes to travel to Kansas City, Minneapolis, Omaha and even to Florida for tournaments.
“If you’re good enough to play on those (elite) teams, that’s the attraction. If you’ve got a track meet in Worthington or a volleyball tournament in Chicago, which one are you gonna go to?”
High school coaches want what’s best for their individual players; that’s one of the reasons they became a coach in the first place. They enjoy seeing their players improve during the spring and summer, and players’ improvements help their high school teams improve, too. Wendorff says specialized players certainly return to their high school teams as better players -- provided they maintain their enthusiasm for the sport and deal smartly with any nagging injuries they might have picked up along the way.
There’s also an added benefit. They get to be seen during their club seasons. College coaches go to their tournaments because the kids participating in them are the ones they want to recruit.
So specialization isn’t always bad, though it’s not necessarily the answer, either.
Worthington High School volleyball mentor Jessica Hogan sees several sides to the question.
“Specialization in all sports right now seems to be the trend, not just volleyball. I think it’s becoming a tough situation because as a coach you want your athletes to put time in and get better, but you also want them to be a well-rounded athlete and person,” Hogan said. “I agree that it gets out of control when an athlete becomes so focused on one sport that they miss out on other opportunities or even become burned out when they get older. …
“Coaches are in a tough situation as well, because of the expectations put on us to volunteer our time to work with players in the summer on the dates allowed by the MSHSL (Minnesota State High School League). It’s another balancing act because you are appreciative of the time to be able to work with your team and build your program, but you are seeing less and less multiple-sport coaches because of the time commitment and burnout factor.”
Specialization in sports is a controversial topic that never seems to go away. A non-scientific study of Internet data shows that most of the conversation argues against becoming wrapped up in just one sport.
Olympic medal-winning volleyball coach Carl McGown has said, along with several of his peers, that early success through specialization does not necessarily result in continued success. Many coaches agree with blogger John Kessel, who in 2012 shared a quote from Lazarus Long, who said, “Specialization is for insects.”
John O’Sullivan, in a column titled, “Is it wise to specialize,” said that parents constantly ask him when their child should focus on only one sport. When he tells them that science says to wait, many respond with something like, “That’s not possible. If my child does not specialize early, she will be left out.”
But if the parent’s goal is to get that child a college scholarship, they often become disappointed later. Many a child has been poured into a sport not of their own choosing. Even with kids who love the sport at least initially, their heavy involvement sometimes becomes a mental drain. Many suffer burnout before they reach a level of maturity.
It may be a surprise to some to hear that college coaches like multi-sport athletes. For instance, a January, 2015, online post showing Urban Meyer’s football recruits at Ohio State revealed that 42 of 47 newcomers played more than one sport in high school.
Busse-Remme says volleyball specialization has “gotten out of control,” spurred on perhaps by a variety of reasons -- the popularity of the sport, the fan-friendly nature of the sport where the rules are easily understood and the action is easy to follow, parents, opportunistic coaches, whatever -- and she wonders if there will come a moment when the over-specialized elements will begin to sit back and re-think what is happening.
“I want these kids to have the best high school experience they can have,” said Busse-Remme. “It saddens me when I see a kid say, ‘I just want to concentrate on this one thing.’ Well, you’re putting a lot of eggs in one basket.”
In smaller high schools, athletic specialization is hardly an option for most athletes. If the top performers choose to concentrate on just one sport, it can become difficult for a school to field a team, so to keep the program going they’ve got to multi-task.
But even at larger schools, one-sport athletes can have a serious impact on the sports they choose not to participate in. At Jackson County Central, for instance, volleyball is a primary girls’ sport. The Huskies, who’ve been blessed with outstanding volleyball players for a number of years, regularly vie for state tournament berths. But many of those same outstanding athletes are dedicated club players, and hardly any of them participated in basketball during the last winter.
The 2015-16 Huskies struggled to a 3-20 girls basketball season.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Tracy-Milroy-Balaton volleyball coach Katie Gervais has been hugely successful in her sport, and indeed the 2015-16 Panthers qualified last fall for the state Class A tournament. The school’s girls basketball team, too, has been hugely successful -- no doubt largely because those same volleyball players star for the basketball team.
“We encourage them to be in two or three sports. We’re just too small to succeed with specialization,” Gervais said.
T-M-B has its own parent-run club volleyball team and it’s geared to work in tandem with other sports. Gervais says she wants the girls to decide for themselves how specialized they want to be, but she also tells them that to be better as a high school program they’ve got to stick together.
“We’re surprised when we see other teams where there’s only one person to a team that plays more than one sport,” Gervais admitted.
But why, then, do so many girls stick to their specialized ways?
“In my opinion, you’re spending a lot of money on those programs, so you want to get your money’s worth,” said the T-M-B coach.
Red Rock Central is another area high school whose volleyball and girls basketball programs benefitted greatly from sticking together. The Falcons’ 2015-16 volleyball season was outstanding, and so was the girls hoops season that followed, led by the same group of players.
“I think athletes who play multiple sports do better,” said RRC volleyball coach Sara Arfsten. “They’re more well-rounded. And you learn a lot from other sports that carry over.”
Arfsten also believes multi-sport athletes tend to stay in shape.
It’s an attitude that Wendorff can appreciate. More and more coaches, Wendorff said, are discovering that specialized athletes are over-using some muscle groups and failing to develop other muscle groups. Volleyball players who go year-round, he said, are suffering from sore shoulders from all the ball-striking that they’re doing.
Perhaps that’s why college coaches who, 10 years ago, liked year-round players, now say they’re looking for recruits that played multiple high school sports.
Wendorff says that high school sports should generally be the primary concern for high school athletes. Busse-Remme would seem to agree. Her daughter Hailey, who will soon begin her senior year at LHS, is a veteran Junior Olympics volleyball player, and even though Busse-Remme says JO programs can be “great,” they can also go too far.
“They can also be ridiculous with the time put in,” with practices that start in December and seasons that last until June, said the coach.
“It’s a big-city mentality. You look at the large schools, these girls often play only one sport. … In a lot of the big programs, if you’re not there at the practices, you’re not gonna play in the tournaments. So you have to be there all of the time.”