May 19, 2009

Polamalu: Worse athlete now than in high school

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IRVINE, Calif. Troy Polamalu is the kind of guy who likens mixed martial arts to Michelangelo's paintings, so you know he takes sports seriously.

The Pittsburgh Steelers safety, though, is quiet away from the gridiron a stark contrast to his ferocious on-field persona so he doesn't speak out often. Polamalu chooses the topics he wants to publicly discuss with care, and last week's Nike Trainer 1 Summit gave him the ideal opportunity to sound off on a matter close to his heart.

When quizzed about the changing face of high school athletics, Polamalu's response was passionate.

"It is unfortunate, but we are going to notice a great change over the next few years," he said. "I feel we are going to see serious alterations in the levels of athleticism.

"From an early age kids are being encouraged to focus on just one sport. That is fine, but I believe they are missing out on the chance to develop a wider core of all-round skills. What we will get is a tiny minority of outstanding athletes and a lot of bad athletes and not much in between."

Polamalu was the epitome of the high school superstar, representing Douglas High (Winston, Ore.) in football, basketball and baseball. He was an all-state center fielder and made all-league in basketball, but football provided his calling. He played four years at USC before being selected with the 16th pick in the 2003 NFL draft.

"I feel that I am a worse athlete now than what I was in high school," he said. "Back then I was playing basketball and baseball as well, and I was much more well-rounded. Stopping playing those sports cost me a lot of fluidity of motion.

"But I am grateful that I had the opportunity to play all three to a good level all the way up until college. The different skill sets have helped to make me a better athlete, and it was definitely the best thing for my career."

Polamalu is concerned by the trend that sees student-athletes being encouraged to specialize in one sport as early as ages 9 or 10. The huge riches offered in the professional ranks puts pressure on parents, coaches and young athletes to dedicate themselves in one field.

Polamalu also claims that limitations on athletic opportunities in schools will further curtail the emergence of genuinely well-rounded athletes.

"When I was in elementary school we were constantly playing stuff like dodge ball or tag, but you don't see so much of that now," Polamalu said. "Even things as simple and early as that can have a big impact on the overall development of someone as an athlete."

In a few months the 28-year-old Polamalu will be attempting to help the Steelers retain their championship, but he took time out last week to do his part in increase performance levels among high schoolers.

The Nike Trainer 1 Summit, which coincided with the launch of its new Trainer 1 shoe, invited more than 50 high school students to take part in a workout session at the University of California-Irvine campus. NFL stars Polamalu, Larry Fitzgerald and Adrian Peterson were on hand to oversee the workout, along with the NBA's Brandon Roy and Amare Stoudemire and 2008 Olympic decathlon gold medalist Bryan Clay.

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