SPECIALIZATION CONCERNS: The Pressure on Kids — and Their Parents — to Choose Just One Sport

On the last day of the year of 2016, Karen Crouse, a long-time sportswriter for the New York Times, did a long article about how the football coaches are Ohio State and Clemson, two of the top four teams this past season, love to recruit athletes who are multi-sport performers.

In the article, Crouse spoke with Urban Meyer, the head coach at Ohio State, and with Dabo Swinney, the head coach at Clemson, and both men made the case that they much preferred to recruit those top athletes who were had played more than one sport in high school. Most of their recruits, of course, were top HS football stars, and that’s the only sport they played. But there were others, such as Sam Hubbard of Ohio State, who was recruited as a top lax player and was actually playing lax at Ohio State before he made the switch to football.

Swinney pointed to his starting QB at Clemson, Deshaun Watson, who had been a star in basketball in HS as well as a top football player. And on a more personal note, Swinney has three young kids who all play football, basketball, and baseball. Urban Meyer, who signed out of HS as a pro baseball player, eventually played college football for four years once his baseball career came to an end.

In fact, Meyer was recently distressed when one of his HS-age daughters decided to give up playing HS basketball in order to play volleyball all year round. Meyer was torn because he’s an old-school guy who knows the merits of not specializing.

HERE’S THE PROBLEM

While Crouse pointed out in her article that specialization too soon in a sport is a growing trend, what she missed was that no one knows how to stp this from occurring. Too many parents — and their kids – start to feel the subtle yet strong psychological pressure to specialize in just one sport at increasingly younger ages. Fifteen years ago, it was common place for a talented athlete to have one sport they liked to play all-year round – just so they wouldn’t fall behind their peers in that sport. But they also played perhaps one or two other sports, usually right through HS.

So a kid might specialize in soccer, but also enjoyed playing for their HS’s basketball and baseball team. But unfortunately, as more and more parents perceive that the pressure to concentrate on just one sport is increasing with every passing year, now we find more and more kids not only just playing one sport, but they simply give up on playing other sports. That’s a shame. Even worse, as we know, overspecialization often leads to repetitive use injuries as well as burnout.

I don’t know how many years I have been writing about, and talking about, this disturbing trend, but it seems as though at least 20 years. It is a real issue, and yet, because too few parents seem to want to rock the boat, they simply follow along and let their kid specialize. The problem is, even if a kid is a talented athlete, if he or she hasn’t been exposed to playing a variety of sports when they’re in youth and HS sports, they may find themselves focusing on the wrong sport, and then have difficulty in making the transition to another sport. Trust me, a kid like Ohio State’s Sam Hubbard is a rare exception these days. That’s why Karen Crouse wrote about him.

Even worse, because we know that so few kids ever progress to play in college (even after specializing in one sport), they have, in effect, gambled that they would be good enough to advance to a college team and thus bypassed all the fun and joy they would have had in playing other sports in HS. That, it seem to me, is most disappointing.

My own three kids played a variety of sports in HS. My son John played soccer right through HS, and was a member of the school’s state team that was in the NYS semi-finals. In ice hockey, he was the school’s all-time leading scorer, and in baseball, he was good enough to have been drafted by the Chicago White Sox. He eventually signed with Chicago, but also played junior varsity ice hockey in college and intramural soccer. My daughter Alyssa was the captain of her HS swim team, and a top scorer on the HS lax team. And Samantha was an outstanding soccer player, superb HS basketball player, and her best sport was lax, which she played in college.

Yes, all three kids played on various travel teams. But if you ask them, they will tell you how much they thoroughly enjoyed playing with their close friends and classmates on their respective HS teams. Those memories are theirs for life, and they certainly wouldn’t have had them if they just focused on one solitary sport.

It sure would be great if I could get parents to finally wake up and ask the tough questions about whether specializing is truly the right move for their son and daughters. But alas, it’s so easy and tempting to caught up in the dream of your kid becoming a college scholarship recruit.