Parker Deprey has a slight preference for basketball over the other sports he plays, but the Caribou High School senior has resisted the temptation to specialize in one athletic activity — with championship results.
The 2019 Bangor Daily News All-Maine forward has led his school’s basketball team to back-to-back Class B state titles, played No. 1 singles for Caribou’s 2018 Class B state championship tennis team and earned All-New England honors in soccer last fall as the Vikings captured their first Class B North crown.
It is symbolic of a formula that has proven safer for young athletes whose bodies are experiencing significant growth.
According to the sports medicine committee of the National Federation of State High School Associations, 27 percent of the nation’s 60 million young athletes who participate in organized athletics specialize in one sport.
It leads to a higher number of injuries.
“Something we see a lot in our high schools and middle schools is an abundance of overuse injuries that kids their age weren’t getting 15 or 20 years ago,” said J.P. Stowe, program manager, athletic training supervisor and certified athletic trainer at Northern Light Sports Health in Bangor.
In general, playing different sports over the course of the year helps reduce injury issues.
“Kids who play multiple sports have a stronger core base because they’re not using the same muscles over and over,” Stowe said, noting that different muscles and body parts are used in distinct sports.
Deprey has largely maintained a season-by-season approach that dictated his short-term sport preference.
“When tennis season would start that would be my favorite sport, and then when basketball came along, I’d start playing basketball, and I’d go up to my dad and say that was my favorite sport,” he said.
Deprey admits to an occasional deviation from that multisport philosophy.
“Two days before our state soccer championship game, me, Alex Bouchard and Sawyer [Deprey, Parker’s brother] got kicked out of the gym because our coach got upset that we were out there playing basketball and had a state game two days away,” he said.
“Sometimes after soccer practice I’d sometimes go to the gym and shoot around, but not daily.”
Playing a variety of sports has meant minimal down time for Deprey. He has missed only one soccer match due to injury throughout his three-sport high school career.
“Playing different sports utilizes different muscle groups, so I think it’s more helpful to play more than one sport to prevent injuries,” he said. “I also see how playing one sport can assist you in another sport, like in tennis when I go back and forth on the court it helps with my lateral movement in basketball.”
The urge to specialize in one sport often is rooted in the pursuit of an athletic scholarship to continue competing at the collegiate level.
Yet according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, only 2 percent of high school athletes are offered athletic scholarships.
“Kids being told they can play in college at a young age, there’s a lot of pressure in that, and then there’s the pressure to focus on that one sport too early,” Stowe said.
And while few single-sport athletes may realize that college scholarship dream, many more fall victim to injuries directly related to such specialization.
Some overuse injuries also come from the opposite extreme — playing multiple sports at the same time, often in order to devote extra time to that preferred activity.
“We see a lot that when kids are in season they’re going to school, then to soccer practice and then to a travel basketball practice three times a week,” Stowe said. “Then they play a soccer game on Saturday and maybe they have four travel basketball games on Saturday and Sunday.
“They’re just getting worn out, whether they feel like it or not. Typically that comes out in injuries, but it comes out in burnout and many other ways. We see that a lot, and we try to talk to parents about it as it becomes more of an injury or mental issue.”
The trend toward playing more than one sport at the same time stems from the increasing availability of organized programs for most activities throughout the year.
Stowe cited the example of high school basketball players who compete during a fall season, then their winter high school season, followed by AAU ball in the spring and summer basketball. Some athletes also participate in soccer or field hockey in the fall and baseball or softball in the spring.
“Playing multiple sports at the same time comes with a higher injury rate, much like playing a single sport year round,” Stowe said.
The National Athletic Trainers Association released a statement in October outlining six recommendations that address the health and well-being of young student-athletes. Among the recommendations is to delay specializing in a single sport for as long as possible.
“What we say is that once kids are skeletally mature, which typically is around 16, 17 or 18, then it’s safer [to specialize],” Stowe said.
Other NATA recommendations are to play just one organized sport per season, limit participation in any one sport to less than eight months per year, and participate in organized sports for no more hours per week than the athlete’s age in years. For instance, a 12-year-old boy or girl should not participate in organized sports for more than 12 hours per week.
“Sports play a big part in kids’ lives when they’re in middle and high school, and you don’t want to take anything away from them but you also want them to experience how fun sports are,” Stowe said. “You want to take away the pressurized side of it where they feel like they have to do 25 hours a week of specialized training when they’re 15 years old.”
Young student-athletes also are encouraged to take two days off a week from organized sports and embrace the breaks at the end of each high school season.
“The [Maine Principals’ Association] gives you Sunday off for a reason, for a physical break and a mental break,” Stowe said. “You also get that time off in November and March between seasons for a reason, to let your body and mind recover so you can start the next season fresh.”
Another reason to encourage multisport participation is that some young athletes may shine early in one activity but may become even better at another as they mature.
“In basketball I felt like I was a late bloomer,” Deprey said. “In sixth and seventh grade I was real scrawny and I wasn’t very tall yet. In eighth grade I hit a point where I got stronger, then freshman year I struggled again but that summer I put a lot of work in and ended up getting a lot better.
“I think every kid should take advantage of all their opportunities in high school, at least,” he added. “It’s not like everybody’s going to go pro, so play all the sports you can while you can.”