Some sports seasons can be excessive

Experts believe athletes should avoid specialization

The sports seasons at the high school, collegiate and professional levels have become something of a marathon.

When the Miami Dolphins advanced to three consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1970s, the players who were on the roster for those three seasons competed in 51 regular season and playoff games. Those Dolphins, of course, were paid professional football players.

The letterwinners on the Southern Columbia High School football team from 2016-18, when the program won two PIAA Class AA championships and finished as a state runnerup, competed in a total of 48 regular season and playoff games.

Those uncompensated high school students played 16 games each season or only one less game per year than the 1971-73 Dolphins.

Prefer more recent comparisons? Last season, the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl to cap a 19-game season, or three more games played than Southern Columbia last year.

Clemson’s victory over Alabama in the title game of the College Football Playoff was its 15th game of the season, one fewer than Southern Columbia played.

In collegiate baseball, UCLA, the No. 1 national seed entering the NCAA postseason, went 47-8 during the regular season, played five games in the regional round and three more in the Super Regional to push the number of games played to 63 or nearly 40 percent of a Major League Baseball schedule.

UCLA’s first game was the day after Valentine’s Day. The College World Series just concluded this past week.

The length of the schedule for top-tier NCAA women’s volleyball programs is also an endurance test of fitness, stamina and will.

The 2019 Penn State women’s volleyball team will open play Labor Day weekend, with the ultimate goal of taking the court in the national championship match four days before Christmas.

There are certainly many legitimate reasons why sports schedules are now measured in months rather than weeks, including an expanded number of schools and teams consolidated into leagues and conferences.

Postseason competition alone can account for 25 percent or more of a team’s games.

After playing 82 regular season games, the St. Louis Blues played 26 more through four rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Look for the teams with the most games played overall in a season and you’ll find championship contenders that are superior in talent and performance.

For youths with skill sets that project to success at the high school and collegiate levels, their sport can develop into a year-round pursuit. Weekends revolve around road trips to games and tournaments across county and even state lines.

For professional athletes, the brass ring is a paycheck with lots of numbers separated by multiple commas and perhaps another type of ring, the one with diamonds that champions wear.

College athletics has long represented the gateway for some to earn a degree while on scholarship. For others, college sports are the avenue to a professional league or the Olympics.

But what are the rewards for the 12-year-old member of a traveling squad who wakes up before dawn on a Saturday for the journey to a tournament that might require an overnight stay? Does the child’s self-motivation to compete supersede other interests that have been sacrificed? Is it too early at that age to consider the child’s sport-life balance? For some youths who compete in one sport throughout all four seasons, maybe it would be more appropriate to refer instead to their work-life balance.

And how does schoolwork fit in?

A University of Wisconsin-Madison study found that athletes age 18 or younger who specialize in one sport were 81 percent more likely to experience an overuse injury compared to athletes who played a variety of sports.

Tom Farrey, the Executive Director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program, cites research suggesting “the best athletes are playing multiple sports, certainly through age 12, but more than that, through high school.”

And what about the burnout factor? At the 2018 meeting of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, Dr. Charles A. Popkin cited findings indicating that “Children who specialize in one sport early in life were found to be the first to quit their sport and ended up having higher inactivity rates as an adult.”

Popkin noted that if a child is devoting more hours a week to a sport than their age in years, “they’re overdoing it.”

Tempering excess is not a well-defined skill in our society. So athletes of every generation and at every level of competition continue to learn the same lesson: Sometimes you must work at having fun.

Even when you’re playing a game.

Jim Caltagirone resides in Altoona.

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