Grace Irvin’s sports career can be summed up in one word: volleyball.
A senior at Raleigh Charter High School, Irvin has been around volleyball longer than most of her peers. Her sister introduced her to the sport when Irvin was 8 years old.
Irvin was too young to try out for any of the club’s official teams, but she spent her days in a developmental league learning fundamentals.
When Irvin was in seventh grade, she became old enough to try out for — and make — her first club team. Ever since she began playing for N.C. Elite, Irvin, who will play at N.C. State University in the fall, has continued to flourish on the court.
A standout among standouts, Irvin was named a North Central Atlantic 1-A All-Conference player three seasons in her career at Raleigh Charter High School.
Every weekday after school, she spends up to three hours practicing, coaching or conditioning — and sometimes all three. Her weekends are usually filled with volleyball tournaments, sometimes as far away as Denver. She and her teammates awake at 5 a.m. to play up to four games from 8 a.m. until as late as 2 p.m. on tournament days.
Practices are just as intense. Irvin tries to at least hit a volleyball off of a wall to make up for any practice she misses.
“It’s kind of holding yourself accountable if you know you’re missing a practice. You work maybe five times harder or 10 times harder the next practice to try and maybe progress your skill or just get more touches,” she said.
For Irvin, volleyball is like a full-time job, and it’s been that way throughout her career. Though she played one year of indoor soccer, she just didn’t feel the same passion for it as she felt with volleyball.
“I quit because I just didn’t love it as much as volleyball,” she said. “I felt like I’d enjoy my time more if I spent it on one thing fully.”
Across the youth sports landscape, many rising athletes are like Irvin. Aiming to maximize their potential, these highly specialized athletes focus on one sport, often with the hopes of playing at the collegiate level. At Carrboro High School, 20 out of the 24 volleyball players specialize. Coach Steve Scanga said when he arrived at the high school in 2007, there were maybe one or two.
But specialization in youth sports — the devotion to one sport, often with year-round training and private sessions — could be putting young athletes at risk, both physically and mentally.
In volleyball, specializing is considered a necessity to get college scholarship offers. Micholene Schumacher, who founded N.C. Elite nine years ago and is now its director of operations, said college volleyball coaches rarely, if ever, come to watch and evaluate potential recruits at high schools, instead scouting at large club tournaments.
Even though Joe Sagula, the UNC-Chapel Hill volleyball coach, doesn’t like how specialization inhibits all-around athleticism, he said the skills he used to look for in high school juniors and seniors he now expects in first-years and sophomores. He notices potential recruiting targets at tournaments.
“Anyone who’s serious about the game is playing club volleyball,” he said. “The expectations are that kids come to college a little bit more prepared skillwise.”
For a high school and club volleyball player like Sarah Montross, the pressure can sometimes be overwhelming.
“(Recruiting pressures) can take away some of the fun of the sport if you’re focused on something other than having fun with the sport you love,” the sophomore from Scanga’s team at Carrboro High School said. “It’s kind of stressful thinking about that stuff being so young.”
Montross doesn’t know yet whether she wants to play volleyball in college, but the decision was not hard for Irvin, who was recruited by N.C. State and committed to the program during her sophomore year of high school.
Mallory Link, a senior on Carrboro High School’s volleyball team, said she has also felt the looming pressure of recruitment. Noticing that playing club volleyball during her senior year was mainly for athletes striving to play collegiately, she decided to quit the club she had been part of since eighth grade.
To be sure, volleyball is not the only sport where recruitment pressures are high. Ray Hartsfield, the athletic director and men’s varsity basketball coach at East Chapel Hill High School, said kids are committing to colleges younger and younger, needing to specialize to keep pace with their competition. He has seen it in all sports, but especially in basketball.
Club volleyball has been around since at least the 1970s, but only recently has it become so popular.
Though Irvin started playing volleyball at age 8, N.C. Elite allows parents to enroll their kids as young as 7. Schumacher said the goal of starting them so young is to expose them to the sport in a safe and fun environment.
“We want those kids to be falling in love with the sport,” she said. “It takes a couple years for kids to realize, ‘Hey, I would miss it if I didn’t have it.’”
For Irvin, this is certainly the case.
“It keeps me focused – mentally tough,” Irvin said. “It instills me with great leadership skills, both coaching and playing.”
Still, specialization often means forking out thousands of dollars each year for weekend tournaments and travel, as well as elite training camps.
Irvin’s uniform package for her 18 black premier team with N.C. Elite costs $430. She said the cost of participating in her club this year could be as much as $8,000, depending on how many tournaments her team decides to enter. Irvin has paid off the expenses for her participation by working for the club as a coach and administrator.
“I knew it was something I really wanted to do with my life and something I did to help lighten the burden off my parents,” she said.
The commonly held belief that specialization is a requirement for success might be incorrect.
Daniel Segal, in his second year coaching women’s lacrosse at Chapel Hill High School, said specializing can hinder athletic development.
“I think it’s healthier to do different things and develop your body in different ways,” he said. “I just think it’s better for kids who are still growing and still maturing.”
Playing multiple sports might mitigate muscle overuse, which is more likely to occur among specialized athletes, according to John DiFiori, former president of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine.
Irvin has never dealt with a substantial injury. She is lucky. A 2014 study by Randon Hall, Kim Barber Foss, Timothy Hewett and Gregory D. Myer examined female athletes who played volleyball, basketball or soccer. Participants who played only one sport were 1.5 times more likely to report anterior knee pain than multi-sport athletes. Sagula, who has been the coach at UNC-Chapel Hill for 26 seasons, has seen his fair share of players entering college with injuries.
“When top-level kids go to play in college, they come in with a handful of injuries,” he said.
Irvin’s volleyball obligations consume much of her time, but balancing multiple interests has helped prepare her for the rest of her life.
“I’ve gained great time management having to manage school, student government, all my clubs and coaching and everything,” Irvin said. “There’s a lot more people can do when they still specialize in the sport. Although it sounds like it, volleyball is not the only thing in my life.”
Though psychologists, coaches and educators might say specialization puts athletes in danger, players like Irvin contend specialization allows kids to love what they do more fully.
“Being able to play volleyball and specializing in it and knowing my route and what I’m good at and what I love kind of helped me figure out what else I want to do in my life and gave me the tools to be able to conquer anything,” Irvin said.