Specialization in Youth Sports, Good or Bad?
Just over two years ago I wrote an article on the growing
athletes specializing in only one sport. It is something that had its
beginnings somewhere in the late 70's, gaining increasing popularity
and athletes' interest as each decade passed.
The question at hand is: Is the centralized focus of athletes
swimming phenom Michael Phelps and tennis stars Serena and Venus
Williams the way to go for all or is
diversity in sports demonstrated by football greats Deion Sanders and
Bo Jackson (football, baseball, & likely more as high school
athletes) better for the masses - no matter what level?
I know it is not completely fair to use elite/professional
like I mentioned above as examples since the majority of competitors,
whether specializing or multi-sport athletes, will never reach this
level of competition. However, they do represent individuals who took
completely different paths to get to the top.
our current sports culture, specialization is a hot topic at the high
school level, especially between coaches, parents, athletic directors,
etc.; it can certainly create heated discussions between these parties
due, in part, to the different perspectives each side presents.
Based on the continued debate regarding such a choice, whether
specialize in a sport or spread your interests over several sports, I
thought it prudent to address this issue, again, for those that might
be facing such a dilemma.
Over my 30+ years in teaching, 17 of them coaching, I have
witness to the definite decrease of young athletes who participate in a
variety of sports (usually referred to as the multi-sport athlete),
especially at the high school level, and a definite increase in the
number of athletes who focus their attention on only one sport.
This begs the question, as the title of this article
indicates, whether this trend is a good thing or bad.
Well, there are certainly strong opinions on both sides of the
of this issue, and both have sound reasoning behind their thought
On the one hand, you have those who believe that
hurting young athletes because it does not allow for the development of
well-roundedness in the individual.
That it decreases an athlete's ability to gain knowledge,
physical development, and benefits from a variety of sports and
activities, and because of this may hamper their interest as adults to
That the increase in specialization has also coincided with
increase in sports burnout and overuse injuries - and keep in mind that
many of the injuries occurring in young athletes today were rarely seen
by medical professionals before specialization became popular.
That the reason for specialization is due to the pressure that
athlete is getting from parents, coaches, and/or the athlete
themselves, in order to gain a scholarship to college and/or compete at
the highest level (none of which is too far off the mark, if at all).
It certainly is difficult to argue with the above reasoning,
though there does not seem to be a large amount of statistical research
that proves everything listed above.
From my perspective, however, I do believe all of it to be
least based on my experience as a physical educator, coach, and parent
of two college-level athletes who have grown up in the current youth
On the other side of this argument (having just as strong
and basis for those opinions) are the individuals who encourage sports
This side of the fence encompasses those who believe that
need to dedicate their time to a single sport in order to compete with
the level of expertise that is out there today.
That so many are choosing to specialize (becoming much better
their sport of choice because of it), others may not even be able to
make their high school teams if they don't concentrate their efforts in
one sport; thus, limiting their opportunity to participate altogether
in something they love to do.
That if they actually have any aspirations to compete beyond
high school, specialization is not optional but a necessity.
That if they truly are in it to see how good they can get, and
the end reach some level of mastery or their potential (and the
self-satisfaction that can come from this), then they must spend the
kind of time in the gym that can only be attained through a strong
focus in one sport.
My experience has also proven that for many, the above
true as well. I have seen, and coached, varsity level teams that
athletes would not be able to make if they did not specialize.
I also believe it to be a fact that the average athlete
today, in just about every sport, is much better in knowledge, skill,
and performance than the athlete of several decades ago, due in part to
this specialization. And, I also know athletes who, if they had not
specialized, would not have garnered the college scholarship they were
Now, I am well aware of the exception to the rule that the
extremely gifted bring to the mix. You know the ones, those who have
the genetic natural talent to play just about any sport, improve
without seeming to try that hard, and even gain a college scholarship
just by their sheer athleticism.
The number of athletes fitting into this category is so small
they are not really worth discussing in the context of this article.
The vast majority of athletes just do not fit into this group, and even
the exceptionally gifted have to bring more focus and concentration
into their sport because their counterparts are doing just that.
I actually believe the gap between the truly gifted and the
athletes is shrinking, thus, the bar has most certainly been raised for
So what are athletes, and/or parents, to do in a situation
where both sides have strong views and beliefs, and those views and
beliefs have a good basis of support behind them?
#2 will discuss this dilemma in greater detail and give
suggestions and food for thought regarding both sides of the argument.
#3 will take a closer look at specialization with regard to
the type of sport itself. Don't miss this final piece to the puzzle of
specialization, good or bad?