The Trend Towards Specialization – What Lake Forest Coaches Think


Bobby Winebrenner

In past years, sports fanatics have watched as great athletes have seen their names listed across scoreboards in multiple sports at the NCAA level and even the big leagues. Guys like Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, and Jim Brown–to name a few–have pushed themselves from gridiron to court to diamond and excelled. In today’s day and age, that phenomenon is a rarity. There will be an occasional Tim Tebow, Russell Wilson, or Robert Griffin III, but 2018’s best athletes are sticking to one sport from even before high school and on. It’s prevalent everywhere, especially within the halls of Lake Forest High School.


I tried thinking of former Lake Forest athletes that are now competing in multiple sports at their respective universities. And either I haven’t been made aware of these high-achieving individuals, or it doesn’t happen anymore. Granted the student-athlete workload is already an immense one for an individual who competes in one sport, playing two nowadays is simply impractical at the college level. However, the changing society has not made it difficult to be a multi-sport athlete in high school.


Curious about the decline in multi-sport participation, I reached out to a few Lake Forest athletic coaches. Coaches Catanzaro, Spagnoli, LaScala, and Brumund-Smith all offered different viewpoints on the topic at hand.


Head football Coach Chuck Spagnoli gave his opinion on the matter. When asked whether he believed his players competing in other sports during the offseason would help them, he responded, “I don’t think it’s a hindrance. We had something like 74 percent of athletes play another sport at some point during their four years at Lake Forest. I don’t tell them what to do and have no problem with them playing something else. I just don’t want them doing nothing.” That’s a rather high percentage, especially considering the amount of student-athletes who participate in the football program and the offseason workouts that are offered. I also asked Coach Spagnoli whether he believed it to be hard to manage another sport with football commitments. Spagnoli responded, “No more than it would be for someone who competes in another sport. We have directed lifts with legitimate structure which lead some to think it’s mandated.” Football participation has also been at a moderate decline at the freshman level and I asked him whether he believed that to be due to younger athletes specializing certain sports. “Participation has been down about 10 percent; at other schools that number is lower and this could be specification,” said Spagnoli. “I have no answer though.”


Head basketball coach Phil LaScala also offered his viewpoint on the matter. As a staple figure in the school, LaScala urged basketball players to take advantage of all the opportunities given by Lake Forest High School. I asked him whether he prefers a freshman who’s athletically diverse or one who plays only basketball. He responded quickly by saying, “I don’t prefer anything; they should be taking advantage of the opportunities given, though. If you look at some of our all-time best players, Matt Vogrich, Evan Boudreaux, Jack Traynor, etc., they all played at least two sports at one point.” I then asked if he would encourage kids to play another sport to which he added, “I encourage them to do whatever they want; I don’t discourage it. However, basketball is a very skilled sport and they have to work on their skill.”


I was curious to see this perspective from a girl’s sports point of view. I reached out to Coach Catanzaro and she delivered a very clear stance on the matter. As the head coach for the varsity field hockey and girls’ lacrosse team, she believes that high school student-athletes should certainly be involved with multiple athletic teams. I asked if she minded her players competing for other Scouts’ teams and she responded resoundingly, “Yes. I prefer it; I’ll tell them to do multiple things.” She then explained, “I think it greatly benefits because you’ll gain better field vision, conditioning, hand-eye, etc. You might be great at your one sport and lead that team but on a different team you play a different role and you become a better teammate and can support your strong sports team even better.” So I then asked what she thought of specialization to which she answered: “I think specialization is very detrimental to both teams and athletes overall.


Each winter, students will see fliers draping the walls at Lake Forest High School promoting the boys’ Track and Field team and all the benefits it offers to athletes without a spring sport. After having noticed this for a few years now, I reached out to head coach John Brumund-Smith to find out his thoughts on the trend. When asked about track participation over the years and what he has done to increase participation, Brumund-Smith responded, “Every year, I send a personal e-mail to each member of the football, soccer, and cross country teams who are not signed up for a spring sport. The email highlights how track can help them in their fall sport. I rarely get any responses.” He later added after talking face-to-face with fall athletes he didn’t always get the best responses: “Several times last year, athletes have said they would show up, then told me they talked to their coach and were specifically told not to. Obviously, that is very discouraging to me.” It is easy to tell why Brumund-Smith would be frustrated by the matter; track and field is a sport which offers tremendous benefits to athletes aiming to improve their athleticism for another sport. I then asked him why he feels so strongly about participating in multiple sports, not just track, and he answered, “Every statistic you look at shows the benefits of multi-sport participation. Research has shown repeatedly that playing one sport year-round is detrimental, mentally and physically, and it is not hard to see why. Mentally, kids get burned out, they need a break. Physically, competing in multiple sports reduces the chance of overuse injuries.” Brumund-Smith knows it goes both ways too. The track and field coach encourages his own athletes to diversify themselves as he commented, “If I have sprinters or jumpers I know only do track, I suggest they play soccer or football in the fall. Distance runners I of course try to convince to run cross country if they do not have a fall sport. Throwers should be on the football team.”


I hope that the various offerings at each school are taken advantage of and athletes are able to find their passions. Ultimately, I believe it to be very important for today’s youth to play as many sports as possible and keep their activity level high. Who knows, the next Bo Jackson may be lurking within a high school across the country but he or she is only playing one sport.