Specialization in Sports: An Adult Issue Impressed Upon Youth

Former KU volleyball player, Tiana Dockery

Google sport specialization sometime. It’s a hot topic. But it is not a youth issue; it’s an adult issue. “We are seeing specialization in sport because the adults- certainly not the kids- are pushing that way,” said Tim Corbin. Corbin serves as the Head Baseball Coach at Vanderbilt. He just finished back-to-back trips to the College World Series, including winning the National Championship in 2014. Corbin went on to say that “Specialization issues are adults issues impressed upon youth.” So, if major college coaches from all sports are talking about how they prefer recruiting multiple sport athletes, then why the controversy? If Division I coaches across all sports prefer to recruit multi-sport athletes, then why are kids specializing in one sport in the hopes of earning a full-ride scholarship?

One of the most perplexing trends in recent years has been the shift for high school athletes to focus on one sport for a variety of reasons, one of them being to help get a college athletics scholarship. Yet, this is odd when so many high-level coaches in all sports talk about their preference for multi-sport athletes. Specialty trainers abound and training opportunities are more abundant and specific than they’ve ever been. Private lessons, strength coaches, pitching coaches, speed coaches, etc. They offer athletes the ability to emphasize their sport year-round. And parents are ready to pay. The SEC softball recruit can work with her pitching coach year-round. She has her own personal trainer and a sprinting coach. She plays high school softball in the spring and travel ball all summer long. When the school year starts, there’s fall ball. Even in cold weather states like Minnesota, she can play year-round thanks to dome leagues. Whether it’s lacrosse, volleyball, swimming, or soccer, athletes can compete and train at a high-level year-round. And many athletes are choosing that route, hoping to sharpen their skills and garner attention when college recruiters come around.

Maybe parents will listen to John McEnroe. McEnroe, the former number one tennis player in the world — and considered among the greatest of all-time in the sport — runs a tennis academy in New York. McEnroe reflected on how refreshing it was for him as a young player to go from the solitary nature of tennis to playing team sports. McEnroe told Alec Baldwin on “Here’s The Thing” that he totally advises his tennis students against specialization.

“I sit with parents and I tell them until I am blue in the face and they don’t listen to me,” McEnroe said. “They sit there like, ‘You don’t even know what you’re talking about.’”

Maybe specializing in sport is just another way parents are trying to perfectly control every element of their child’s life. It’s like the entire road map to success has already been planned out. And so we hire the best trainers and play for the right clubs and map out the road to a Division I scholarship. “We don’t want to allow them to make a mistake,” Corbin said. “We want to catch them before they fall.”

Instead of exposing them to other coaches and other sports, we keep them in one world to protect them. But we can all admit there’s great value in struggling as an athlete, failing, learning to persist, enduring. Corbin flat out said he believes that specialization hinders growth.

Recently, U.S. Lacrosse came out with an article where the vast majority of college coaches said they preferred signing recruits who played several sports in high school. Dom Starsia, University of Virginia men’s lacrosse coach, asked his young campers, “How do you learn the concepts of team offense in lacrosse or team defense in lacrosse in the off-season, when you’re not playing with your team?” The answer Starsia gives campers is “by playing basketball, by playing hockey, and by playing soccer and those other team games, because many of those principles are exactly the same.” Starsia said that probably 95 percent of their players at Virginia are multi-sport athletes. “It’s always a bit strange to me if somebody is not playing other sports in high school.”

Do parents truly understand the degree of exceptional athleticism needed to be a Division I athlete? As I read in the Changing The Game Project, “to be an elite level player at a college or professional sport, you need a degree of exceptional athleticism. And the best medically, scientifically, and psychologically recommended way to develop such all-around athleticism is ample free play and multiple sport participation as a child.”

“It’s always a bit strange to me if somebody is not playing other sports in high school.”

Multi-Sport Athletes Can Showcase Their Leadership Skills

Urban Meyer won three national championships as a Division I football coach and created quite the buzz when the graphic above went viral — 42 of 47 Ohio State Football recruits were multi-sport athletes in high school. Five played football only. Legendary college quarterback Tim Tebow says when Florida coach Urban Meyer came to recruit him, it was spring and Tebow was playing baseball. Meyer later said he had never seen a player impact a game from right field so much, and it was because of Tebow’s leadership from out there.

Multi-Sport Athletes Can Showcase Their Athleticism

One of Meyer’s current players at Ohio State is considered one of the finest defensive lineman in the country, and a sure-fire NFL pick. Adolphus Washington is a 6-foot-4, 290 pound defensive tackle from Cincinnati. What makes this defensive tackle so good? He is exceptionally athletic for his size. Adolphus Washington didn’t just play basketball and football for Taft High School in Cincinnati, he was the Gatorade Boys Basketball Player of the Year in the state of Ohio after averaging 23.1 points and 14.3 rebounds.

Multi-Sport Athletes Can Showcase Their Power

The truly special athletes look at another sport as just one more stage where they can display their unique gifts. The story of Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops’ first encounter with running back DeMarco Murray has been told over and over. Apparently Stoops’ interest was sparked by seeing a young Murray dunk a basketball. Murray is now a running back in the NFL. Former Oklahoma State football coach, Pat Jones recalls nearly giving up on his recruitment of defensive back Chris Rockins until he saw that Rockins had long-jumped 24 feet during track season.

Multi-Sport Athletes Can Showcase Their Toughness

Michigan State head basketball coach Tom Izzo loves recruiting players who play multiple sports in high school. His favorite player ever, Mateen Cleaves, led MSU to the 2000 National Championship. Besides being a blue-chip basketball player, Cleaves was an All-State selection in football as a quarterback at Flint (MI) Northern High School. His toughness and remarkable leadership ability came in part from having been a leader and key player in two sports. When he got to Michigan State, he was better equipped to lead and compete.

Multi-Sport Athletes Are Special

When Pete Carroll was building a college football dynasty at USC he wasn’t looking for football only guys. “I hate that kids don’t play three sports in high school. I think that they should play year-round and get every bit of it that they can through that experience…I want guys that are so special athletically, and so competitive, that they can compete in more than one sport.”

Maybe instead of quitting high school hockey to “focus on soccer,” you should work to be that special player athletically who can compete in more than one sport. The “pretty good” to “average” kids may buy into the specialized myth, but Carroll talks about the kids who are so special athletically, and so competitive, that they can compete in more than one sport and stand out from the crowd. That’s the rare, great athlete that top-level coaches are looking for.

Michael Oher already has had a long career as an offensive lineman in the NFL. He has gained more notoriety from the book and movie “The Blind Side,” which chronicled his journey from boyhood in Memphis to Ole Miss football player to the NFL. Before Oher played football at Ole Miss, he lettered twice in basketball and twice in track in high school. His basketball team went 27–6, winning the district championship, and Oher averaged 22 points and 10 rebounds in basketball, earning All-State honors. In track, he was state runner-up in discus.

The examples from women’s sports are endless too. Tiana Dockery is a senior outside hitter for the Kansas volleyball team who led her team to the Final Four in 2015. One look at Dockery and you know she is one of the best pure athletes in all of NCAA volleyball. Dockery, a multi-sport athlete in high school, lettered for three years on the track team. She won the 2011 Texas state championship in the long jump (4A).

Rhamat Alhassan might be the most dominant player in NCAA volleyball and she is only a sophomore. The 6-foot-4 middle blocker for Florida is one of those special athletes Pete Carroll was talking about. Alhassan played high school basketball and was nominated to be a McDonald’s All-American in basketball after scoring over 1,000 career points in high school. A McDonald’s All-American who goes into the SEC and makes an immediate impact as a middle blocker in volleyball.

Destinee Hooker’s college volleyball coach at the University of Texas said, “She is one of the best female athletes ever at Texas.” Hooker was the 2009 NCAA Indoor and Outdoor high jump champion, the first athlete since 2004 to capture both titles in the same year. Following her indoor campaign, Hooker was honored as the USTFCCCA Division I Indoor Female Field Athlete of the Year. She was also pretty good at volleyball, being named as a Honda Award finalist for volleyball, named to the AVCA All-America First Team, and the All-Big 12 First Team. The outside hitter helped lead Texas to the NCAA Championship semifinals, where she was named to the All-Tournament Team after earning all-tournament honors the previous week at the NCAA Austin Regional.

“I want guys that are so special athletically, and so competitive, that they can compete in more than one sport.”

The list of elite athletes who were multi-sport athletes is endless. Some examples from years past and the present day include: Jim Thorpe, Jim Brown, Bo Jackson, Charlie Ward, Deion Sanders, Brian Jordan, Jackie Robinson, Jonathan Ogden, Darin Erstad, Joe Mauer, Tony Gwynn, Marion Jones, Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham, Tony Gonzalez, Julius Peppers, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Chris Weinke, Jameis Winston, Jeff Samardzija, Todd Helton, Tom Glavine, Kenny Lofton, John Elway, and on and on.

Venturing outside of one sport of expertise allows athletes to train muscles and skills in different ways, perhaps gaining the advantage of developing in ways not emphasized in their primary sport.

“The truly special athletes look at another sport as just one more stage where they can display their unique gifts.”

While specialization is a booming and concerning trend in youth sports, the U.S. women’s soccer team can be seen as proof that such an approach is not the only route to success. A recent article highlighted the fact that collectively the national team members played at least 14 different sports competitively while growing up, as well as soccer.

Abby Wambach is one of the greatest soccer players of all time. Wambach believes her success in soccer would not have been possible without her experiences on the hardwood. “Playing basketball had a significant impact on the way I play the game of soccer,” Wambach said. Abby lettered in basketball at Our Lady of Mercy High School in Rochester, N.Y., and could have played at the collegiate level. Midfielder Morgan Brian played basketball all four years of high school and says it is “the same game as soccer, in terms of vision.” Forward Amy Rodriguez swam, played softball and ran track.

Jewell Loyd was the number one overall pick in the 2015 WNBA draft. While at Notre Dame, she was the ESPNW player of the year before leaving for the WNBA. Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw says there is no doubt Loyd is the greatest athlete they have ever had play for the Irish. Loyd attributes her footwork in basketball to fast reflexes needed in tennis — specifically, the doubles game. She also says her hand eye coordination was helped greatly by playing tennis.

Maybe parents should listen to Wayne Gretzky — arguably the greatest hockey player of all-time: “One of the worst things to happen to the game, in my opinion, has been year-round hockey and, in particular, summer hockey. All it does for kids, as far as I can tell, is keep them out of sports they should be doing in the warmer weather. I could hardly wait to get my lacrosse stick out and start throwing the ball against the walls and working on our moves as we played the lacrosse equivalent to road hockey. All the good hockey players seemed to play lacrosse in those days and every one of them learned something from the game to carry over to the other — things athletes can only learn by mixing up the games they play when they are young.”

When you research multi-sport athletes, a common pattern emerges. College coaches want their recruits to play multiple sports, compete, and work on a variety of athletic skills and movement patterns. Once they get to college and narrow their focus to just one sport, coaches see tremendous gains.

Tom Izzo commented on how Cleaves took off in college when he narrowed his focus to basketball. Current NFL Quarterback Sam Bradford is Oklahoma’s patron saint of multi-sport athletes. He excelled at football, basketball, golf, and hockey in high school, but was considered a middle-of-the-pack recruit as a Big 12 quarterback. No one was predicting a Heisman Trophy and No. 1 overall NFL Draft choice in his future, but when he went to college and put the other sports aside, he flourished as a football player.

Narrow your focus too soon and you might peak too soon. Urban Meyer believes that a multi-sport athlete tends to excel when he hones his focus on football in college, and he backs that up with 89.4 percent of his incoming recruits being multi-sport athletes. Play multiple sports. Build athleticism. Learn how to move efficiently. Get stronger. Then, when you go to college and narrow your focus, your career may take off.

The trend of youngsters being pushed towards specialization shows no sign of slowing down. If the only thing you have done since age 10 is play strictly football or volleyball, what makes you think you won’t peak too soon?

Kids get stale. There are some overuse issues. There are some injury issues,” Tim Corbin said. “Developing athletic skills is paramount to being good no matter what you are doing.”

“Narrow your focus too soon and you might peak too soon.”

Abby Wambach of the US Women’s Soccer Team said, “I understand the argument of people being one sport athletes at a young age, but for me and my personality I would get burned out as a young kid playing just one sport. Having the ability to play basketball for a bit throughout the year gave me the chance to crave soccer, to miss it.”

Youth soccer is full of year-round training, 12 minute two-mile runs, and parents and coaches who buy into specialization. But this sport has one of the highest injury rates when it comes to lower extremity injuries, specifically ACL injuries. Maybe players need to take three months off to train different movement patterns, quit overdeveloping the same muscles, and quit pounding on the same joints for 12 months a year.

Do we blame the club or high performance coaches? Are they pressuring their athletes to participate in the travel teams and the high-performance camps at the expense of playing another sport? Do we fault the high school coaches who aren’t flexible when those elite athletes want to play other sports? What basketball coach in his right mind would not work with Adolphus Washington- help him work on his basketball game, while he prepares to sign with Ohio State for football.

Maybe other coaches need to embrace “The Brittany Chambers Rule.” My wife has coached for 13 years at Northern Lights, the second ranked club volleyball program in the country. Unfortunately, the volleyball world has bought into the specialization myth big time. High school volleyball is followed by club volleyball. When that ends in late June, it’s time for high-performance camps and college camps. Before you know it, it’s time for team camps and captains’ practices for the high school team. But the point of this story is Brittany Chambers. Chambers played on the 17–1s club volleyball team at Northern Lights. Anytime Brittany walked into the building, she was immediately the most athletic player in the club. But the Jordan, Minnesota junior’s best sport was basketball.

Brittany missed her fair share of Lights practices for basketball. But she was coachable, powerful, and so athletic that you were glad to have her part of the program on the nights she could come. Though she could have played Division I volleyball, Brittany went on to play basketball at Kansas State. She was later drafted in the WNBA.

High school coach: if your sport is the athlete’s second or third sport, kill your pride and embrace the kid who wants to commit to your sport for the season. When you have a chance to coach a special athlete, don’t make it difficult for them to play multiple sports. Embrace them into your program. It will be good for everyone involved.

NFL Hall of Fame Coach Bill Parcells is very outspoken about the coach who had the most impact on him. His mentor in coaching was Mickey Corcoran, Bill’s high school basketball coach. Who knows what kind of football coach Parcells would have been if he never played basketball for Corcoran.

Every high school coach can list athletes who actually need to be playing the other sports. A football player who needs to play basketball to help his footwork, or needs to run track to help his explosiveness. The parents may not listen, but it would be a huge benefit to their child. Not to mention, it would be fun.

As Scott Wright wrote in The Oklahoman: “Amid all the debate, there’s something to be said for a child having the opportunity to enjoy the high school experience.”

“High school is such a precious time for these guys and girls,” Tulsa defensive coordinator Bill Young said in that same article. “They need to play what they want to play.”

Yes, there are many articles on the perils of specialization. And I agree with Tim Corbin. Specialization is not a youth issue. Specialization issues are adult issues impressed upon youth. So athletes, remember the Pete Carroll quote. Play two or three or four sports. And play them right up until you head to college. Desire to be the kind of player that is so special athletically — and so competitive — that you can compete and stand out in more than one sport.

Thanks for reading- I’m Scott Raymond. I’m a writer, a volleyball husband, and forever a coach and a teacher. I’m passionate about horse racing, Major League Baseball, and NCAA Volleyball. I live in the Twin Cities with my wonderful wife Kari. Acts 20:24

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