Multi-sport vs specialization for hoops: “It depends on the kid”

Multi-sport vs specialization for hoops: “It depends on the kid”
Published: Mar. 13, 2023 at 10:10 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - This past autumn, Sioux Falls Washington girls basketball’s dynamic duo — twins Brooklyn and Hannah Harpe — geared up for a dazzling dash to last Saturday’s state championship victory by playing on a soccer team that didn’t win a game.

Across town, No. 1-ranked Jefferson’s point guard Taylen Ashley revved his basketball jets by throwing touchdowns to his long-time buddies (several who also play hoops) in an undefeated state football title run.

Meanwhile, Elliot Whitney, a sharpshooting guard for the No. 2 Lincoln boys, spent those fall months the same way he does year-round — on a basketball court. He played in a non-school-sanctioned league and spent a lot of time practicing by himself. He’d shoot and dribble indoors and outside, wherever there was a hoop.

And he wouldn’t want it any other way.

“I’ve never really seen it as lonely, because it’s what I like to do,” Whitney said.

The topic of what is better for the growth of a high school athlete — playing multiple sports throughout the year, or focusing on improving at one, like Whitney does — has been a hotly debated topic among sports parents and coaches for years. This issue is especially hot in a sports resource-rich city like Sioux Falls, where there is no shortage of elite personal instruction, state-of-the-art training facilities, traveling teams, and club leagues. That is, if a parent can afford it.

Whitney is the example of someone who has taken full advantage of all that — from summer camps, to individual training, to the AAU circuit, to those solitary shootarounds in his driveway, or the fitness center, or in school “open gyms.”

It wasn’t always like this. Whitney used to love competing in tennis and baseball. Around eighth grade, he noticed some kids who played basketball year-round were “much more” skilled than him. So, he decided to commit to monogamy with the hardwood.

“I was like, this is what I want to pursue, so that’s what it takes,” Whitney said. “I just went full force with it. That’s the competitor that I am. I wanted to be the best that I could be. So, I really worked at it.”

His goal was to become a varsity starter by his senior year. He achieved that a year early. As a junior, he started all 24 games and averaged 11.8 points per game, less than a half-point shy of the team’s leading scorer, 7-foot-1 sophomore sensation JT Rock, who is committed to play at Iowa State.

In his senior campaign, Whitney is second on the squad in scoring at 14.3 points per game (behind Rock’s 18.0 average) while both his field goal and three-point shooting numbers have leaped by about 10 percent. And that has not all that has improved.

“I’d say I’m more skilled than a lot of dudes,” Whitney said. “So, I mean (playing year round) kind of gave me that pathway. I’m not the most athletic guy. I’m not the biggest dude. But, I mean, skill level, that kind of helped my game, playing in the summer.”

Jeff Halseth has been Lincoln’s head varsity coach for 14 years and was an assistant coach in the program for 20 seasons before that.

“He’s turned himself into what I would consider a complete basketball player,” Halseth said of Whitney. “He can shoot. He can attack. He can pass. His defense has gotten a lot better over the year, and that’s what’s gotten him to where he’s going to play some college ball.”

In January, Whitney accepted an offer from Div. III Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. He will likely live his dream of playing at the next level.

“I was just kind of grateful,” Whitney said of making his college commitment official. “After all that work, finally reaching your goal, that’s kind of a surreal feeling.”

Whitney vividly recalls riding back from his October campus visit to Gustavus, where he and his father Stu had met the coaching staff and felt the accomplishment of college coaches trying to pitch themselves and their program for Elliot’s services.

“Me and my dad were in the car, and we were like, ‘whoa, this is a dope experience,’” Whitney said, “especially because I was talking about it for a while.”

Many varsity high school basketball coaches like Halseth ride the fence of hoping their players devote as much offseason time as they can to sharpen their hoop skills, while at the same time encouraging them to join other teams.

“There’s just a fine line between multi-sports or specialization,” said Halseth. “It just depends on the kid.”

Halseth has guided two Lincoln squads to state championships. In 2015, the Patriots did it with several football studs, much like the make-up of Jefferson’s crew this season. The next year, LHS repeated with players who were mostly all about basketball. This year?

“I’ve got a group of juniors that are fantastic football players — just good athletes,” said Halseth about an LHS team that is seeded No. 2 at this weekend’s state tournament.

He was referring mainly to quarterback Tate Schaefer, his third-leading scorer, and Jack Smith, one of his first two players off the bench. Unlike several Patriot hoopsters, neither Schaefer nor Smith play summer club basketball because their baseball schedule is “very full.” Meanwhile, Rock takes a basketball break in the spring months to compete in the high jump for the track and field team.

“I’m a multi-sport coach, so I kind of believe in seeing multi-sport athletes,” said Halseth, who guides the golf team in the fall and was an assistant football coach at Lincoln for 24 years before that.

“Those kids that are in multi-sports, they get a chance to compete a bit more often. They learn how to handle competition a little bit better, where guys like Elliot — just a basketball player — get to work on his skill, and use those skills in competition. He’s played a ton of basketball games. It’s not like he doesn’t understand the competition level of basketball, between AAU and all the (varsity high school) games he’s played so far.”

Jamie Parish has coached high school varsity and club hoops for 25 years, both boys and girls. On Saturday, he led the Washington girls to their third state title in his nine years at the helm. Parish said he is seeing dwindling participation numbers in girls hoops across the state.

“Something that is hidden right now — because the high-level talent is so high and so special — is that a lot of people don’t see what’s happening in the middle and the bottom,” Parish said. “Numbers are down. You can attribute that to a lot of things, and a lot of them are guesses. Kids have found other sports. Kids have found other activities. Kids have done different things, and the Activities Association has done a good job of expanding opportunities for girls.”

A check of girls high school basketball participation figures from the South Dakota High School Association’s executive director Dan Swartos shows Parish is correct.

In 2022, there were 2,610 girls playing basketball, with 168 schools offering it. Twenty years ago, there were 3,403 girls playing hoops, with 182 schools offering it.

“We are definitely seeing more single-sport specialization over the last 10-20 years and a lot more year-round activities/club teams/travel teams,” Swartos wrote Dakota News Now. “That’s likely part of it. There are also fewer teams, as noted above. When you have co-operatives, you sometimes end up losing participants from both towns because now there is more competition for spots on the team or they don’t want the extra travel to and from practice (which in some cases is 30+ miles each way).”

“We added girls wrestling 3 years ago and this year that was 416 girls. I don’t know how many of them were formerly basketball players, but I’d assume there at least some.”

A common conception for the decline in girls competing in high school basketball is the growing popularity of volleyball of the last two decades. While they play in different seasons — volleyball in the fall and basketball in the winter — the budding year-round club scene in volleyball has made some girls with skill sets and athleticism built for both sports feel like they have to choose between the two.

Parish said, yes, this is a concern. But instead of trying to win a war of attrition with Washington volleyball coach Kelly Schroeder, Parish said the two have become “really good friends.”

“We push dual sports very hard,” Parish said. “(Schroeder) and I scheduled our summer stuff in a way that we count the hours that the kids are putting in,” Parish said. “It’s not the hours they’re putting into basketball, but the hours they’re putting in, total. And he and I came to a number of about 16 to 18 hours is all we can get from a kid.

“That means I get eight, you get eight, and we’re going to structure our own things in that way to promote that and encourage that instead of discouraging it, and making kids frustrated, and making them feel, like, ‘oh, you’re missing our things,’ and making them feel left out, and scolding them for that type of choice.”

Parish said this has worked well, overall, and has two shining examples to prove it. For a few years, both Sydney Schetnan and Njakalenga Mwenentanda were elite players in both sports, and both athletes earned scholarships at the highest level of college athletics. This season as a true freshman, Mwenentanda has played in 29 of 34 games for the University of Texas, the 15th-ranked team in the nation. In 2021, Schetnan joined both the volleyball and basketball squads at Louisville, before transferring to South Dakota State to join the volleyball team this past January.

Brooklyn Harpe and her twin sister Hannah just powered Washington to the state title on Saturday. They’ve both earned a scholarships to play hoops at the University of Sioux Falls, starting next season.

They, too, play offseason club ball. Most of the top high school basketball players do.

But part of the Harpe twins’ journey was playing soccer in the fall months throughout high school.

“It’s just a balance thing,” Brooklyn said. “Soccer gets you the conditioning, the stamina.”

At Washington, the soccer team went 0-10-2 this season.

“It gives you an attitude adjustment,” Brooklyn said. “You go out there, even if you’re not going to win, you’re still going to play your hardest, and so when you come play basketball, it makes you feel thankful.”

Asked if she thinks playing soccer between summer club basketball and the high school hoops season is an effective way to prevent roundball burnout, Brooklyn said “maybe” and then shifted to, “Yeah, I do.”

“During soccer season, I miss a few open (basketball) gyms in the morning,” Brooklyn said. “I could go to those basketball practices, but with two hours of soccer practice after school, it’s kind of nice, the balance of — not a carefree sport, but one that I don’t have to take as seriously, and then I get to come play basketball and give it my all.”

Whitney doesn’t appear to experience burnout by constantly grinding at basketball year-round. He made sure to point out that he does play other sports recreationally, like golf and tennis, where he finds his older sister, Emily — a former Lincoln High varsity tennis player — to be a fun and worthy playing partner.

He said sometimes he will watch a tennis match or baseball game and wonder what it would be like to still compete and be with his old teammates in those sports at the high school level.

“But once I’m playing basketball, it’s like, yeah, I did this for a reason,” Whitney said. “It’s what I love to do. It’s a sport I love more than anything. So, yeah, no real regrets.”

His advice for any middle schooler like he was, who plays multiple sports and is struggling to decide between pouring all their time into one sport, or splitting time and having it all?

“If you’re going to stick with one, you better love it,” Whitney said.