“My son struggled since he was in elementary school. Now he’s in high school and he’s so exhausted he didn’t even make it out for the team.”

“My neighbor plays basketball all year round and is unconscious indefinitely due to stress fractures in the lower part of her legs …”

“All I’ve played is football, now I’m not a starter so I’m going to quit. I think it’s too late to start another sport now …”

Have you ever heard statements like these? It saddens me to say that I listen to them too often. With the media screaming about the Tiger Woods and Venus and Serena Williams of the world, many people are making the mistake of starting a sport at a young age, starting a sport very young and specializing in it. The lure of college scholarships has also convinced these people that major is the only way to become good at a sport.

Before someone decides to specialize, they must consider the dangers of participating in just one sport. Here are 4 dangers of specialization:

1. Overuse injuries: Stressing the body in the same way over and over again for all or much of the year can lead to overuse injuries. Stress fractures, compartment syndrome, and other conditions are often the result of a lack of diversity in athletes’ activities. It is best to challenge your body in different ways throughout the year to develop as an athlete. Different sports will put different stressors on your body, leading to better overall athletic performance. Pediatricians across the country have asked that children participate in a variety of physical activities.

2. Burnout: Playing a sport day after day, week after week, year after year can lead to burnout at a fairly young age. Children begin to play organized sports at an earlier and younger age. Someone who plays hockey from the age of four can get tired and bored with the sport when they get to middle or high school. No: The specialization provides breaks and other experiences to keep a core sport interesting, challenging, and fun.

3. The illusion of university scholarships: as much as parents want their children to receive sports scholarships, the truth is that a very small percentage of athletes achieve this goal. A scholarship in itself should not be the driving force for choosing to participate in just one sport. A person should not put his health, happiness and future on the small possibility of a “complete trip”. Most athletes will benefit more from a variety of athletic experiences, even if a scholarship offer never arrives. Also, most college recruiters look for the best athletes. One of your first questions is often, “What else did you do besides play (insert main sport here)?” There is evidence to support this. For example, more than 75% of the 2004 football recruiting class for the Wisconsin Badgers is listed as playing multiple sports in high school. Also, look at each year’s draft picks in the NFL. Most of those players did not major in one sport during their high school careers. How often have you heard this on draft day? “We are going to select the best overall athlete available …” Playing more than one sport is the best way to become that overall athlete.

4. Not Achieving Your Full Athletic Potential – While concentrating on one sport will help you develop the specific sport skills needed, it will not develop other athletic skills that would carry over into your core activity. Speed, balance, mental focus, jumping and twisting are emphasized differently in different sports. Everything you do to become a better athlete will also make you a better player (insert sport here).

More and more research shows that early specialization does not guarantee athletic success. We hear about the few who flourish from early specialization, but what about the vast majority who don’t “make it” in their chosen sport? How many athletes can you think of who have succeeded by not specializing? How about Deion Sanders, Bo Jackson, Jim Thorpe, Babe Didrickson, John Elway, and Marion Jones, to name just a few?

Sport should be encouraged from an early age. However, it is best to encourage participation in a variety of sports activities to develop athletic skills that carry over to all sports. This will reduce the dangers mentioned in this article, bring young athletes to their full athletic potential, and who knows, maybe it will bring that coveted college scholarship.

Copyright, Tim Kauppinen, 2005

This article is copyrighted, 2005, Tim Kauppinen. All rights reserved.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *