It doesn’t seem like Waunakee’s student-athletes have gotten the message.
Single-sport athletes are the inevitable future of high school athletics, according to national trends; that’s simply the direction high school athletics are going. Among a national culture that’s more and more pushing specialization of athletes – over 77 percent of high school athletic directors reported an increasing trend in sports specialization in a 2013 study by the Loyola Stritch School of Medicine – Waunakee High School shows a different trend, with more and more athletes choosing to play multiple sports.
Why does Waunakee differ from much of the rest of the nation? There’s no single answer, but a handful of reasons seem to paint the picture. One in particular tends to make its way to the top of the list.
“Every single time anybody – when I say anybody, I mean the National Federation of High Schools, the WIAA – any time those groups survey kids on why they play sports, the top reason consistently that comes back is, ‘Because of my friends. Because of my friendships,’” said Waunakee High School’s Activities Director Aaron May. “That’s why. They want to be with their friends and have those meaningful experiences.”
Former Waunakee athlete Reed Ryan – who was last year’s Defensive Player of the Year in football and the WIAA State runner-up at 220 pounds in wrestling – agrees.
“I’ve met some of my best friends through my sports…” said Ryan. “Sports serve as a great way for people to interact with others.”
When more athletes choose to play more sports, the arena becomes the best – or at the very least, most common – place for many students to spend time with friends. Everywhere you look in Waunakee’s athletic programs, you’ll see the evidence. Last year, 89 percent of the Waunakee football team played at least two sports. All five starters on the Waunakee girls’ varsity basketball team were contributors in another sport. In fact, all but two players on their full roster played at least two sports, with a handful – including the now-senior Anne Dotzler – contributing as members in three sports.
For Dotzler, juggling three sports while being involved in extra-curriculars – including being the senior class’s vice president – all while carrying a GPA of over 4.0 has become second nature. Growing up always in sports has given her plenty of practice in staying organized.
“Playing sports my whole life has been able to help me do all of it now,” said Dotzler. “When I was younger, all the stuff I’ve learned has really helped me be able to juggle it all now.”
Even among Waunakee’s top athletes who received Division 1 scholarships, the desire to play a sport other than the one that will pay for their college education is still there. Kiana Schmitt had already committed to Creighton University for volleyball when she signed up to play basketball for the first time in years as a senior. Maddie Farnsworth played basketball and soccer all four years, even after accepting a soccer scholarship from Butler. Nate Stevens had a baseball scholarship offer from Arkansas before he ever stepped into the batter’s box at Waunakee, yet Wisconsin Baseball Central’s 2018 Player of the Year chose to suit up and play football, as well. The ability to continue playing both sports in high school even factored into college decisions for some athletes.
“[North Dakota State] encouraged me to continue the sports I was playing,” added Ryan, who is currently attending the school on a football scholarship. “Most colleges want their athletes to stop doing their other sports once they commit, but NDSU promoted doing other sports.”
Another factor is health concerns, both physically and mentally. Athletes specializing in one sport – especially early as a child – have much higher burnout rates than multi-sport athletes.
“[There’s] a huge reduction in burnout,” said May. “There’s so much anecdotal evidence of kids that played [one sport] non-stop throughout elementary and middle school and then all of a sudden, sophomore year in high school, they’re sick of it.”
“It kept your mind active so you’re not always doing football or wrestling,” added Ryan of switching from one sport to another. “They serve as nice change ups.”
Physically, overuse injuries are a significant concern for athletes who focus on the same sport year round. In baseball, it’s a pitcher who wears out a shoulder; in soccer, the knees become a concern with overuse.
“There’s a lot of sports where there’s a lot of repetitive action,” May added. “If you’re a hitter in volleyball, there’s a lot of stress and strain on your shoulder; if you’re playing it all year round at a young age, it can definitely have some cumulative effect.”
Spreading the focus on different sports throughout the year significantly lessens the risk of these overuse injuries. According to a NFHS-funded study in 2015-16, specialized athletes were twice as likely to sustain overuse injuries than multi-sport athletes.
Perhaps the simplest reason many Waunakee’s students choose to play multiple sports is that doing another sport will make them a better athlete. Athletes who have a desire to ultimately get to the next level know that some skills best learned in a different setting will give them an edge.
“My performance in football improved from wrestling because it made me feel comfortable in awkward positions,” Ryan said. “Wrestling is a sport that requires you to be very fluid in your movements, and that translated into the football field by keeping the mentality of being fluid in my pass rushes.”
“All of the training really helps each other…” added Dotzler, who has competed in cross country, basketball and soccer every year of her high school career. “I think cross country is the basis of all three. Cross country really helps me specifically with my position in soccer; the long-distance running helps with that. In soccer, the short sprinting within it helps with basketball, and those coincide together.”
The final reason that seems to be driving Warrior athletes looks to be the sense of pride about the athletic program as a whole at Waunakee.
“I think Waunakee has that culture because the athletic program in general is so amazing…” Dotzler said. “For me, at least, and I think for other athletes, I just want to be a part of all of it and not just one.”
That tradition built by a solid athletic program goes back decades. In their childhood, today’s athletes saw what others did to add onto that tradition and felt compelled to add onto the tradition that was already there.
“The biggest thing – I think – is kids when they’re younger seeing their idols doing other sports,” said Ryan. “So their inner little kid comes out as they want to strive to be like the high schooler they looked up to. By following in their footsteps, they diversify in sports to become the best athlete they can be.”
“We’re all in this together; we’re all Warriors,” added May of the mentality that exists within the halls of Waunakee High School. “One Warrior program does well; every Warrior program is doing well… A rising tide lifts all boats.”