Specialization concerns

SPECIALIZATION CONCERNS: Why Does This Trend Continue When the Best Athletes Don’t Specialize?

A recent study by the prestigious American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons came up with two conclusions that sports parents ought to keep in mind.

The problem is….they seem to contradict the other.

Specifically, the Academy said that a recent survey found that 45% of all current HS athletes specialize in one sport. That is, they play that one sport pretty much all year round and don’t spend much time in participating in other HS sports.

Now, we all know that there’s been a substantial increase in the amount of specialization in this country, but apparently the numbers are now reaching close to 50 percent, which is pretty stunning. Remember, it’s the orthopedic surgeons who are the ones doing all of the surgery to repair repetitive use injuries in teenagers, such as Tommy John arm operations, torn ACLs, and so on. There are studies that show a direct correlation between all-year round specialization and a rise in youthful injuries.

But here’s the interesting part. A secondary conclusion of that Academy survey showed that when they talked to current professional athletes, only 22 percent of these elite athletes felt that it was a good idea for their kids to specialize in one sport. In fact, whereas the vast majority of most HS and college athletes felt it was a smart idea to focus on one sport in order to get ahead, only 62% felt that was important.

So here’s the disconnect: we now have a generation of HS athletes who are convinced that specialization is the key to success…..and yet those athletes who are at the top of the athletic pyramid feel pretty much that’s not necessary.


If you’re a mom or dad who has a kid starting out in sports, there seems to be a strong inclination to push one’s child into one sport at age 5 or 6, and keep them progressing as quickly as possible on that one track. If the parent has a favorite sport, say, ice hockey or soccer, parents are inclined to gently prod their kid into playing all year round in that one sport that the parent is familiar with.

Common sense, of course, dictates just the opposite: why not expose the child to a variety of sports, such as soccer, hockey, tennis, swimming, baseball, lax, and so on….and then let the child decide which sport (or sports) they would like to pursue?

Problem is, judging from the calls this AM, it would seem that too many parent s don’t want to take that kind of chance with their kids to play a variety of sports, or to trust them to decide what sport to play. Besides, motivated parents don’t want to “sacrifice” a year or two of development time when their child could be accelerating their advancement in one sport.


So if close to 50% of HS athletes only play one sport, what does this mean? For starters, it means that all-around athletes who used to play two or three HS sports during the year are no longer competing for their school at different sports. That means that HS coaches are looking at fewer talented players coming out for their squads. And in turn, it puts pressure on the HS coaches to try and “attract” top athletes to focus on their sport, rather than share them with their coaching colleagues.

And of course, with specialization, there’s a rise in repetitive use injuries, burn out issues, and for too many athletes, a sense that they are no longer playing sports because it’s fun and enjoyable, but instead, it’s become more of an obligation and a chore.