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To Specialize or Not Specialize in a Single Sport?

specialize in a single sport

To Specialize or Not Specialize in a Single Sport?

If you have children who play at a competitive level of any sport, you have no doubt encountered the dilemma of whether or not to have your child specialize in a single sport. While the best answer to this general question is, “It depends,” I recently heard a high school athlete add a piece to the puzzle. Her observation was so profound that I hope you will stick around to the end of this post to see what she had to say. First, a little insight into the issue.

I once asked a long-time athletic director and coach about the biggest change he had seen in his three decades of coaching. He answered, “That’s easy. People no longer see the value in simply being a part of the team.”

I won’t paint every young athlete and his or her parents into that corner, but what my athletic director said is certainly more true than it’s ever been. Why is that? Perhaps one of the greatest contributing factors is young athletes and their parents choosing to specialize in a sport at earlier ages than ever. Rosters of travel teams are built for every player to play because every family has paid for their young athlete to play, not sit. High school tryouts are not that far away, after all.

But what if they are missing something more important by choosing to specialize in a single sport too early?

The Arguments For and Against Specialization

For years, plenty of coaches and parents have pushed for kids to specialize at younger and younger ages. Their reasoning contains much truth: the need to gain valuable experience, to survive high school tryouts, to access higher-level coaching, to maximize potential.

Then, of course, there are the arguments against specialization: repeated motion injuries, burnout, lack of overall athletic development. With prominent coaches like Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer and Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin speaking out in recent years against athletes choosing to specialize in a single sport, the anti-specialization movement has gained steam.

As Parents, We’re Forgetting Something

The decision of whether or not to specialize in a single sport usually centers on whether or not it is best for an individual athlete. One component of the conversation sport parents rarely consider nowadays–and I’m speaking particularly at the high school level–is what is best for the athlete’s school? I’ve heard the objections:

  • “But I’m not as good running track as I am at soccer.”
  • “But I might get hurt in football and not be able to play baseball.”
  • “I want to concentrate on football since that’s what I’m going to play in college.”

Those statements may very well be true, but does it consider the bigger picture?

  • Yes, you’re great at soccer, but you might also be the missing piece of the 4×400 relay team that could earn some points for the track team.
  • Yes, you might get hurt in football, but you might also learn to face adversity and get back up…repeatedly. (And you might also get hurt playing baseball.)
  • Sure, you’re going to play college football, so you’ll likely never get a chance to compete in another sport again.

And then, there’s the perspective of my shortstop. She’s a gifted high school athlete whose main sport is softball. She is also a member of the two-time defending state champion basketball team at our school. In a devotion that she recently shared with our team, she reflected on what she has learned as a two-sport athlete.

She is a leader on our softball team, even as a junior, but she didn’t play much on the basketball team except for mop-up duty late in games. However, she watched the example of how the better basketball players (whose best sport was basketball) taught her and showed patience with her. When she transitioned from the basketball court to the softball field this year, she determined that in her best sport, she would have the same patient heart of a teacher with teammates whose best sport wasn’t softball.

Basketball taught. Softball benefited. Our shortstop’s example is that of leadership that is caught, not taught. That value that will outlive her sports career and is one of the understated values of playing multiple sports. Consider this when helping your young athlete to make a decision about whether or not to specialize in a single sport.

About Al Ainsworth

Al Ainsworth is a values storyteller. He works with individuals, businesses, churches, and other organizations to pass along their values through the stories they tell…and re-tell. Al is the author of Lines in the Gravel (and 52 Other Re-Told Childhood Tales), Stories from the Roller Coaster (of a Faith Life), and Coach Dave: Season One. Subscribe to his email list for more values storying.

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