High school athletic directors strive to foster positive multi-sport athlete culture

AD’s cite injuries from repetitive muscle/joint use, burnout potential

Staff writerJuly 2, 2014 

Peninsula High School junior Chance Stolz and Gig Harbor sophomore Alex Emery both play three sports for their schools, a rare feat in today’s culture of specialized sports clubs and teams.


The three-sport athlete is a dying breed.

Young athletes are specializing in one sport at increasingly younger ages because of a cultural narrative that suggests they have to in order to be successful and earn athletic scholarships.

But Gig Harbor High School athletic director Bob Werner and Peninsula AD Phil Willenbrock are hoping to play a part in reversing the nationwide trend.

“(Athletes are) told that the way to get to that college is to specialize early, and parents have bought into that,” Werner said.

But most of the scholarships are actually going to multi-sport athletes, Werner said. For every Tiger Woods, there are nine athletes who are competing in various sports and earning scholarships.

“When college recruiters talk to me, one of the first things they ask is, ‘What other sports do they play?’” Werner said. “If a kid has played their whole life in one sport, they might be tapped out in their potential.”

One of the most alarming concerns for athletes who only play one sport is the injury rate due to repetitive usage. Willenbrock said injuries that were once common among athletes in their late 20s are now happening with adolescents. Werner pointed to fastpitch catchers and volleyball players who suffer frequent shoulder injuries from overuse. There are also soccer players who tend to blow out their knees.

The last major concern is potential burnout. Parents see their children succeed in a sport at a young age and want them to specialize in that sport. But playing one sport for 10 months out of the year often takes the fun out of it.

Peninsula junior Chance Stolz, who plays football, wrestles and competes in track and field, appreciates the balance of competing in different sports.

“I don’t get burned out,” Stolz said. “I love all my sports. I’m sure if I did it year-round, I might get burned out at some point.”

Playing multiple sports doesn’t deter Stolz’s dreams or detract from his talent. The Seahawks’ starting linebacker is hoping to play football at the college level.

Gig Harbor High sophomore Alex Emery plays football, basketball and competes in track and field. The Tides’ center, power forward and shotput thrower not only enjoys different competitions but also the social aspect of playing various sports.

“I would feel kind of empty not having a sport during the year,” Emery said. “Different guys play different sports. You have your football friends, basketball, track friends. It’s nice to see them all instead of just one group.”

Werner said playing multiple sports teaches valuable life lessons. While a player might be a star on the football team, maybe they’re fighting for playing time on the basketball team. Having different roles teaches a strong work ethic, among other lessons.

“I think they learn so much about sportsmanship, humility, needing their teammates,” Werner said. “I think that’s huge.”

One of the obstacles of promoting a multi-sport culture at the high school level is the coaches, who at times give players not-so-subtle hints to play their sport year-around. Werner makes it abundantly clear to his coaches that they need to promote multi-sport athletes.

“When I hire them, you can bet it’s on the interview questions,” Werner said. “How are you going to support (a) multi-sport culture?”

Peninsula coaches have embraced multi-sport athletes, and Willenbrock is constantly in communication with them.

“We’re on the same page with this,” he said. “We need to lead programs that support multi-sport athletes.”

Willenbrock said he worries that too much of a kid’s self-worth may be wrapped up in their success in one sport. While he doesn’t want to make any judgments regarding someone’s personal decisions, he said it’s important to have a conversation about sports specialization.

“My big picture concern is, what are we putting our value in?” Willenbrock said. “Are we putting too much value in one thing? Is a senior going to walk across the stage at graduation and say, ‘Did I miss being a high schooler?’ When we create our identity around our success in a sport, is that healthy?”

Above all, Werner said he just wants kids to have fun playing sports. When they play one sport all year, it can start to feel like a job.

“One of the things I found most fascinating: When do they get to play a sport without a coach or parent hovering over them?” he said. “I saw the football team playing volleyball on the sand courts the other day. No coaching, they were just having a good time.”

Werner will begin to give presentations at various elementary in middle schools in the area on the merits of being a multi-sport athlete.

If parents have access to his information, he’s confident that they’ll embrace a different way of thinking. Both athletic directors will continue to foster an environment at their respective schools that embraces multi-sport athletes and recognizing the student-athletes for their participation in various sports.

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