Sports specialization is a fairly hot and controversial topic these days and rightfully so. It seems that whenever this topic is brought up, the media will point to world-class athletes like Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Tom Glavine or Michael Jordan, stating how they were multi-sport athletes in high school or college. Tony Gwynn was drafted in the first round in both baseball and basketball. I could go on. All amazing and inspiring stories, but from where I sit, I also think that athletes of that stature could play pretty much any sport at a high level, at least in high school, right? I mean if Lebron James wanted to play wide receiver beyond high school, do you think he would have been good?
Growing up in the 70s and 80s, my friends and I were year-round athletes. We went from season to season playing baseball, basketball, football and hockey. I also played tennis and golf. Not a day went by that I wasn’t doing something sports related in some form of a pickup game. Playing one sport year-round wasn’t something that was even considered, let alone an option or something kids did.
Today’s sports culture is vastly different from the one in which I grew up. Practices, professional lessons and travel ball has changed the youth sports landscape. As a father of a 14-year-old, I am right in the mix these days. My son is a multi-sport athlete and I hope he continues doing so for the foreseeable future. I will also tell you that his “primary” sport is baseball and while he plays multiple positions, he is also a pitcher. He also plays and loves basketball and will do anything that involves a ball, puck or some form of competition in his spare time.
While specializing in one sport too early is the controversy at hand, I think baseball gets an even greater amount of scrutiny, primarily because of pitching injuries. In my Little League baseball playing days, I think we maybe played 20 games in a season including playoffs. At 12U, my son’s baseball team, for which I was the head coach, played almost 60 games from April through the end of July. Add another 20 or so in fall ball and it adds up to a far greater amount of baseball than I could have ever imagined playing at that age. I am sure there are some coaches and programs out there reading this whose teams played even more games.
I have read that about seven percent of high school athletes go on to play a sport in college. I would imagine the number of athletes who turn pro is less than one percent. Those numbers are pretty staggering when you consider the amount of athletes that essentially end their playing “careers” at 17 or 18.
Youth sports should be so much more than wins, trophies or the dreams of college scholarships, especially if those dreams are more the parents’ than the kids’. Playing multiple sports can help prepare our children for the real world by interacting with multiple coaches and teams that can offer different perspectives, work ethics and life lessons which are invaluable.
So, what is the right age to specialize in one sport? My answer is that it depends, if ever. I am not sure it’s fair to compare anyone in high school to Patrick Mahomes, or have youth players specialize in one sport year-round before he/she has hit puberty. It’s a controversial argument, one that each parent and athlete should weigh carefully before specializing in a single sport.