Specialization: To Be or Not To Be
I hate kids who play one sport.
Obviously that isn’t entirely true, but it is fun to be reckless with words to get a rise out of people.
Specialization, also known as a single sport athlete, has gained immense popularity in the United States over the last decade.
Where once we had athletes who played an assortment of different sports, either recreationally or competitive, we now have athletes spending year round focus on a single sport. The common age I see for this? 12.
What happened that caused our nation to forgo the multi sport (and multi-dimensional) athlete? It isn’t like we don’t have a long history of celebrating multi-sport athletes, the most famous of who is Bo Jackson.
Bo knows that playing multiple sports helped him to acquire skills and athleticism that carried back and forth and enabled him to perform feats that others couldn’t. His skill acquisition was benefited by being exposed repeatedly to a variety of movements that enabled him to excel.
Jim Brown, another legendary athlete, was also an All-American lacrosse athlete in conjunction with being a Hall of Fame football player.
One of my favorite quotes of all time is “Success leaves clues”. You may not have the exact circumstances as someone else, but if you look at what they have done you can facilitate your own development in some area with a replicable facsimile.
Yet, the multi-sport athlete is also something that is a misnomer. Being a multi-sport athlete isn’t the only way to be a multi-dimensional athlete. For some, it isn’t feasible to be multi-sport, for others, it isn’t difficult enough to truly be a multi-sport athlete. Here we will look at specialization and long term athletic development in today’s culture
Does Specialization Work?
YES! It works dramatically in the short term. It creates athletes that have a depth of understanding of their game that is beyond the multi-sport athlete. Take two 11 year old boys who both play lacrosse, basketball and baseball together. They are best friends. They enjoy their training. The naturally more talented of the two on the other hand is always just a little bit better at everything.
The boys turn 12 (hell they are born on the same day, joint birthdays and everything) and boy A has decided that he is no longer interested in playing lacrosse or basketball, he would rather just play a lot of baseball. Boy B is good at all the sports; he plays them all on an equal level.
At 13, boy A is far and away better at baseball than boy B. Boy A is playing on the top travel teams and is capable of competing with anyone. Boy B is capable of making those teams, but since he will also be playing Lacrosse in the same season, he can’t commit to playing baseball on a full time schedule all summer long. In addition, player B take more time to get back into baseball because he hasn’t spent the winter in clinics and getting coaching from instructors.
Fast forward to age 15 and something changes. Player A is one of the best players in his area. He has the talent and ability and skill to play with anyone. Player B is missing some skill, but makes up for it with high levels of overall athleticism. Both players have started puberty and have begun to grow. Player B has decided to give up lacrosse in order to spend more time on baseball.
At age 17 both athletes have decided to play college baseball. They are being recruited by the same schools and have the chance of playing together if they choose. Something is different with these athletes though. Player A is being recruited at second base; because his athleticism and arm strength limit him from playing the shortstop he has played most of his life. Player B is being recruited as an athlete, someone who can play multiple positions because his athleticism enables him to compete physically with the best athletes.
Here is the rub. Player A is maxed out at his sport. He will make progress and do well dependent upon how much growth he has left. Player B hasn’t tapped into as much of his talent, this player can grow and change and have a shot at playing at the next level.
So is there a difference?
What Defines A Successful Multi-Sport Athlete
To me, the success of a multi-sport athlete is dependent upon the skills and overall athleticism that they develop by playing in multiple sports.
This distinction is important!
You don’t NEED to play multiple sports in order to become a multi-dimensional athlete. This is what I think is being left out of the conversation.
If previous boy A had spent his time in strength and conditioning programs, lifting weights in full ranges with varied movement patterns. If he had spent time doing speed development working directly on the skills that are required to be a well rounded athlete; then he IS A MULTI-SPORT ATHLETE.
See, I don’t find a difference with an athlete that is exposed to training of this kind and an athlete that plays for a school that is small; where he is capable of starting for any team the tries out for simply because the competition is small. This is the same to me as training, only you get LESS out of it.
Blasphemy I know.
True multi-sport athletes are the ones who go to a competitive school, with nearly a thousand kids per grade (or a high level private school) and will be subject to cuts and athletes who are geared for that sport.
Take my high school. I graduated with 155 people. I never worried about cuts. Getting a varsity letter was more a big deal in freshman and sophomore year because you were good enough to make varsity. It was a given as an older athlete to be on varsity. THIS TYPE OF MULTI-SPORT DOESN’T DEVELOP BETTER ATHLETES.
To me, a true multi-sport athlete is one that has the ability to conquer and succeed in a variety of sports at a high level.
Lebron James was All-State in football
Russell Wilson was drafted by the NFL and MLB
Tony Romo is a pro bowl level quarterback. He also was co-conference player of the year with Caron Butler, former NBA All-Star.
These are truly the multi-sport athletes. These athletes are competing at high levels with their athleticism. If you just play a sport, I do not feel you necessarily are doing better than if you trained. In fact, I think if it is part of the development program, training is far more beneficial.
The Psychology of Specialization
I get to see hundreds of athletes every year from all different sports and mixed backgrounds. I get to see the early specializers and the “athletes”. 80% of the time, the athletes are the ones succeeding. If you are trying to adopt a better plan for your child or yourself, spend time developing skills. Learn to shuffle and defend someone. Learn to run a route. Learn to takedown an opponent in wrestling. All of these skills can transfer to you being better at your primary sport.
The other thing is that it keeps kids sane.
Spending your life like a professional athlete has a terrible ending for some athletes. Their parents and they spend countless hours on the road and in training centers working on aspects of their game. Their specialization enabling them to maximize their efforts in that sport on a small scale, unable to see that being mediocre won’t lead to the ending they want.
College time comes and the only people calling or asking are D3 schools. Some kids don’t get even a single call or comment from a coach. They spent their entire life playing 1 sport with the goal of succeeding and getting a scholarship, and now they aren’t even able to play that.
What did that athlete miss out on? Fun? Friends? Stories and memories.
You end up trading a life for something that never happens. You teach kids that you go all in on something and lose. Wonder why we have more and more young people unable to deal with a world that is harsh and abusive at times? Look at the lessons that are being taught through sports and life now, where participation is enough for lauding.
The Game Plan
For some people, not all of these ideas will be useful. You are going to be aged out of some of the benefits. If you have a nephew or another child that you can implement these changes with, do so. If you have already gone deep into specialization and fear what you may have done, breathe, there is still time to let them have some fun.
Stage 1: Old Enough To Move
This stage is going to be different for each child, but I suggest when your child is old enough to move around on their own without stumbling on themselves, you get them involved in some type of gymnastics program.
Gymnastics has an already built in athletic development component for very young children. At 3-4 years old kids are learning tumbling and planks and running and jumping. Each step has tools and coaching to accelerate development. Understand that this is for fun and developing your child’s innate athleticism in a low stress environment. Get out before it gets serious!
**Gymnastics is great because it teaches movement. Why develop sports skills when kids can’t even run yet. Think about that.**
Stage 2: Old Enough to Share
Want to know the worst form of sport in the world? T-Ball.
Baseball is a game of complex interactions and rules, now let’s set 4 year old up and have them play together. Pointless. Also pointless is soccer at a young age. Let’s take some kids who don’t know how to share and have them kick a ball up and down the field where half of the kids (even kids on their own team!!) are trying to take the ball away. Frustration ensues.
Instead a good rule is to keep kids out of team sports until they are old enough to share and understand the rules of the game. If your child cries when someone takes the soccer ball away, or when they are out in t-ball they aren’t ready yet. Go back to stage 1.
Stage 3: 7-12 years old
Expose them to sports and movement. Every sport and movement. What if Tiger Woods father had been a basketball fan instead of a golfer? Tiger would probably have ended up a decent D2/3 player somewhere and not one of the most dominant golfers of all time.
So what sport are you a fan of? Are you being biased for your child, when maybe they should be a top level swimmer or soccer player when you are a wrestler or football player. Let their talents and passion dictate directions, give them exposure so that they build various abilities and overall athleticism that will increase they ability long term.
If multiple sports isn’t feasible, find a facility to do speed training in. Learn movement and how to do it well. This will make you and your athlete better.
Stage 4: 13-15 The Start Of Competitive Sports
This is high school level. Things are able to be observed about skill. We can tell if an athlete is good or not, you can start to whittle down your sport selection. This isn’t the time to go all in on 1 sport though. Take for example this picture:
What would have happened had all of those athletes decided to dedicate to one sport at an early age. If we are looking at the numbers, they most likely wouldn’t have been on the team!
Here is where training becomes even more important. Drop a sport, focus on 2-3, and then begin strength training and speed training. This is the start to being serious.
Stage 5: 16+ The Home Stretch
At this point you are a varsity athlete, you are making college visits and deciding on what position you like best. Here we drop down to 1-2 sports depending on ability. While I am fine to let an athlete compete in a 3rd sport, I feel spending time training the body for high levels is more worthy of a focus.
It is hard for an athlete to spend 3-5 hours a week training, 10 hours a week playing sports, and 10 hours a week working on school, and doing that year round. Having a block where training is all there is helps to let the body grow and decrease the stress the athlete experiences.
Stage 6: The Freaks
These are the Bo Jacksons. Athletes capable of playing multiple sports at the same time at the highest level.
To me however, one athlete stands out as the greatest multi-sport athlete of all time: Deion Sanders.
Deion played in the World Series and the super bowl. Deion is a hall of fame athlete, he also led a different sport in a category multiple times (stolen bases/triples). Yet, it often is neglected that Deion got his nickname, Primetime, while playing basketball.
This type of athlete is rarer than rare. Even Lebron James gave up football to focus on his basketball career; and with the way specialization is going, we may never see anyone close to this again.
Specialization isn’t all it is cracked up to being, it will work for some, but leave the vast majority wanting. Spend time developing all levels of athleticism and you won’t be disappointed.