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To specialize or not to specialize

By: Randy Pascal – Playback

 | May 23, 2014 - 4:06 PM |
Ryan Taylor is one of the best jumpers in Ontario, but he gave up basketball — and soon maybe volleyball — to get there. Photo by Scott Haddow

Ryan Taylor is one of the best jumpers in Ontario, but he gave up basketball — and soon maybe volleyball — to get there. Photo by Scott Haddow

Does focusing on a single sport do a disservice to young athletes?

For anyone familiar with city track & field championships over the past few decades, the trends are clear. First, there are definitely fewer athletes competing than back in the heydays of the 1970s.

Second is the fact that, despite the drop in overall numbers, there are still some outstanding athletes being produced, among the very best provincially and beyond. If anything, it could be argued there is simply a much larger gap today between these "super athletes" and the next best grouping in the field then there was 30 years ago.


Part of the reason is a small core of ultra-devoted athletes who take their craft seriously from a relatively young age, resulting in more developed skills by the time high school rolls around.

This is something reflected across all sports, not just track.

Understandably, that commitment often comes at the expense of other sports. So the question becomes, should talented young athletes be specializing in a single sport while in high school in an effort to maximize their abilities or, should talented athletes be allowed to explore multiple sports to make them better athletes.

The scenario has played itself out, many times over, in the eyes of Track North head coach Dick Moss.

"The long-term athlete development plan for track and field and cross-country is quite a bit different than it is for a lot of sports," Moss said.

"For elite athletes, at an international level, in distance running and track, they mature in their mid to late 20s. So really for us, if we're looking at a kid who we think has national team potential, we're trying just to ease them along.

"Our developmental plan is really what the Soviets did with most of their track athletes way back in the 1970s and 1980s, which is to use a multi-sport plan, allowing them to do all different activities when they are younger," Moss said.

"What happens is that they become a better athlete, and a better athlete becomes a better runner."

Make no mistake, this is a discussion, a debate, that will continue to grow. Even now, hundreds of local hockey players, having just completed a very busy eight month season, are six to eight weeks into their spring hockey training which will lead to perhaps a few more summer camps and tournaments, just in time for tryouts in August.

Having broken both the triple jump and long jump city records again this year, Ryan Taylor is currently Ontario's No. 1 seed in triple jump in his age group.

Entering Lasalle Secondary two years ago from Northeastern, he was part of a phenomenal assembly of young men who also dominated the city when it came to both basketball and volleyball. By Grade 10, basketball was eliminated and volleyball might be next come September.

"I don't see anything wrong with it, if you're committed and ready to take the next step," said Taylor. "It sucks, quitting something that you love to do. I love all sports, really, but I love track the most."

Taylor is in a somewhat unique situation, having grown up in a track & field environment. His father, Jim, is easily the most decorated jump coach in the area in recent times.

Danika Falvo had no such pre-determined path. Now in Grade 10 at Collège Notre-Dame, Falvo burst out of nowhere to capture gold at OFSAA one year ago in the javelin, heaving the lance 36.14 metres, a distance that would have also garnered her first place in the junior girls category against competitors almost all a full year older.

The results prompted plenty of off-season discussion about whether it was time to commit, in a big way, to seeing just where the javelin might take her. To her credit, the well-spoken teenager summarizes quite well the dilemma facing an interesting mix of elite local athletes.

"I would be willing to do year round training and take the sport more seriously, I definitely would," said Falvo. "I think it would help me in the future, as far as taking the next step. But I also enjoy doing other sports.

"I understand letting some of them go, but if you have a passion for a lot of sports, you should still be able to do those things that you love."

Make no mistake, this is a discussion, a debate, that will continue to grow. Even now, hundreds of local hockey players, having just completed a very busy eight-month season, are six to eight weeks into spring hockey training, which will lead to perhaps a few more summer camps and tournaments, just in time for tryouts in August.

As for the track & field crew, there is young Jaclyn Groom waiting on the doorstep, having posted a personal best triple jump at the Nipissing Invitational a few weeks back that would have seen her crowned SDSSAA senior girls champion — despite the fact she is only in Grade 8.

"With someone like Jaclyn, I really don't push the whole specialization thing right now, because she's so good at all the other things that she does," said Jim Taylor, her jump coach.

"For me, Grade 10 is about the year when you start about specializing.

"And even then, a lot of the kids are doing one or two other sports," added Moss. Which suits Ryan Taylor and Danika Falvo just fine.

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