When head squash coach David Talbott came to Yale in 1983, he had six players on his roster who also played another sport. This year he only has two.
Talbott’s case isn’t unusual — athlete specialization has become a national trend according to coaches interviewed. While Director of Athletics, Tom Beckett, said that the school has been unusually supportive of two-sport athletes, Talbott estimated that there were approximately 50 two-sport athletes 27 years ago when he first stepped on campus; now there are only around 11 out of 850.
“I think it’s a sign of the times,” Talbott said. “Students have the mentality that if they don’t excel in one sport, they might not get recruited.”
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Amy Backus, senior associate director of compliance and varsity administration said that athlete specialization has been detrimental to the athletic programs at small high schools around the nation who need athletes to play multiple sports in order to fill their team rosters.
But while athletes think they might have an advantage focusing on just one sport, there are proven mental and physical detriments as well to sports specialization. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, young athletes who only play one sport often miss the opportunities that playing multiple sports provides while encountering potential physical, physiological and psychological problems that arise from focusing on just one sport.
Still, Talbott and head football coach Tom Williams said that even though single sport athletes might perform better in their sport over an athlete who competes in multiple sports, those multi-sport athletes have a definite recruiting appeal. Williams said that while the multi-sport athletes he coaches are not necessarily the best, they do have more position flexibility on the field.
“They’re not pigeon-holed into playing one spot on the football team,” Williams said. “That’s something we take into account when we’re recruiting.”
Not all coaches, however, perceive this decline in multi-sport athletes. Assistant track coach David Shoehalter said he has seen an increase in two-sport athletes because their talents are applicable to more than one sport.
From a recruiting standpoint, Shoehalter said two-sport athletes are actually very appealing because while Yale is admitting only one student, Yale athletics is filling two rosters.
“We have to make it clear to the athletes that whichever sport recruited them has precedence … If we recruited them, the expectation is they will play for our sport,” he said.
Current Yale two-sport athletes interviewed said playing their sports from a young age through high school made giving one up in college too difficult a task.
Logan Greer ’11, captain of the squash team and a starter on the women’s lacrosse team, said that one of the reasons she decided to take on two sports at Yale came from her high school’s three-sport requirement which proved to her coach that she was a versatile and multi-talented athlete.
“I was really used to playing all year round and doing a lot of different things,” Greer said. “So [my coach] encouraged me to do it. It was definitely a huge factor.”
Talbott said Greer is the best all-around athlete that he has ever coached on the women’s team, and he attributed her athleticism to her playing lacrosse and field hockey in addition to squash.
He added that Greer was a number one junior in squash, yet out of all the kids playing at such an elite level, she was probably the only one not playing only squash.
But Chris Stanley ’11, a corner on the Yale football team, said that while coaches can say that they won’t prefer single sport athletes over a two-sport athlete, it’s still difficult to overcome the pressures that coaches place on athletes during the recruiting process.
“Coaches are selfish in the fact that they want their athletes to be 100 percent committed to their sports,” Stanley said. He added that, as a multi-sport athlete, it’s impossible to devote as much time to his sports as the players who specialize.
“They are going to have that advantage over you,” he said.
Head soccer coach Brian Tompkins added that playing multiple sports at such a high level can work, but it “takes a special athlete and a special type of discipline and commitment.” He said that playing at the Division I level requires year-round conditioning and practice, making it difficult to play multiple sports.
Brook Hart ’11, quarterback for the football team and a member of the baseball team, said sports for the modern athlete has taken on a year-round meaning. For example, baseball plays off season games in the fall, and does strength training in the winter in addition to a 44-game regular season. And even in the summer, Hart said coaches encourage athletes to take classes during the summer at Yale in order to utilize the school’s athletic resources.
The athletes interviewed said that the most difficult time of year is when neither of their sports is in season, as they have to attend a morning practice for one sport and an afternoon practice for another sport or two afternoon practices.
Backus said according to NCAA regulations, athletes can practice a maximum of four hours per day, with a weekly in-season limitation per week of 20 hours with one day off.
“The fall is pretty brutal,” lacrosse and squash player Robby Berner ’12 said. “I go to squash practice from four to six, and then to the fields and play lacrosse.”
Talbott admitted that while he supports multi-sport athletes, as a coach he does not want his own sport to be compromised in the process.
Backus added: “Sometimes even in the recruiting process coaches may think, ‘Well if they’re playing more than one sport, how dedicated are they to my sport?’”
With the exception of Charlie Neil ’12, who was recruited for both baseball and soccer, all of the multi-sport athletes interviewed were officially recruited for one sport, and then walked on to their second sports.
Greer, Neil, and Stanley said that coaches at other schools were not as accommodating. Greer said the Princeton squash coach would not have let her play lacrosse had she decided to commit to the Tigers.
“That was one of the reasons I chose to go to Yale,” Stanley said. “A lot of the other Ivy League schools wanted me to focus on one or the other, but Yale was really supportive.”
Chelsey Locarno ’12, who plays on both the field hockey and softball teams, said her coach probably saw her desire to play softball as a way to add another dimension to the field hockey team.
“I think it was probably a win-win for all of us,” Locarno said. “If a player can walk on to the team without having to take up a recruiting spot, it’s always a great thing for a coach. I’m a much better athlete for it.”
Backus said playing two sports gives players a more balanced perspective not only within the realm of athletics, but also on life in general. She said it’s healthy to take a break and do something different.
Greer, who is the No. 3 ranked College Squash Association player heading into the 2010-11 season, and started 10 games for the lacrosse team last year, is an example of this balanced perspective.
She said at a young age she was a competitive ice skater. “I specialized to the point where I burned out,” she said. “I think I’m a much better athlete for it because there are different types of fitness required for squash than lacrosse, but the two really feed off each other. The work I do on the squash court makes me a better defender in lacrosse.”
Greer added the team dynamic of lacrosse is a welcome break from the “intensely individual” nature of squash.
Beckett said that competing in multiple sports on top of the academic commitments that come with being a student at Yale is something to be admired.
“It is very, very unique that you find someone who is able to balance all of the demands of their schedules with their interests in pursuing their high achievement in two different sports,” he said.