Specialization in Youth Sports, Good or Bad?

Part 1:

By Kirk Mango

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Just over two years ago I wrote an article on the growing trend of 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 like 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 athletes 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.

In 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 to 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.

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Over my 30+ years in teaching, 17 of them coaching, I have been 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 fence of this issue, and both have sound reasoning behind their thought process.

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On the one hand, you have those who believe that specialization is 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, skill, physical development, and benefits from a variety of sports and activities, and because of this may hamper their interest as adults to stay active.

That the increase in specialization has also coincided with the 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 the 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).

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It certainly is difficult to argue with the above reasoning, even 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 true, at 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 sports environment.

On the other side of this argument (having just as strong opinions and basis for those opinions) are the individuals who encourage sports specialization.

This side of the fence encompasses those who believe that athletes need to dedicate their time to a single sport in order to compete with the level of expertise that is out there today.

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That so many are choosing to specialize (becoming much better in 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 in 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 reasoning is true as well. I have seen, and coached, varsity level teams that athletes would not be able to make if they did not specialize.

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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 seeking.

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 that 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 other athletes is shrinking, thus, the bar has most certainly been raised for everyone.

So what are athletes, and/or parents, to do in a situation like this where both sides have strong views and beliefs, and those views and beliefs have a good basis of support behind them?

Article #2 will discuss this dilemma in greater detail and give suggestions and food for thought regarding both sides of the argument.

Article #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?