The Age of the Specialized Athlete

As a specialized athlete myself, the number of one-sport athletes has become a norm in society. Does it REALLY benefit the individual?

Viktor Tesarczyk — St. Paul, MN

In my time as a high schooler, I’ve often heard about kids who were dropping sports in order to “focus” on another.

I am one of them.

When I was younger, I was apart of club soccer as well as playing tennis in the seasons where it was assumed to be played — the summer. Every year when the days were filled with the sweltering Minnesota heat, I always felt rewarded and ultimately re-energized to come back to the feeling of picking up a racquet every day. It made me feel a reason to enjoy every day of it, and when the summer ended, that same feeling of rejuvenation was transitioned over to the game of soccer.

Around the time high school began, it was time to make THE CHOICE. The choice of which I would have no return, and only because I had to “specialize” in one side of myself. Along with the other high schoolers in my place, a lot of us had to make this arduous decision that almost felt forced upon us; in my case, I chose to pursue tennis.

The verdict is that the single sport athlete has changed the whole sports spectrum. According to Matthew Shipman, a teacher and soccer coach at Central High School, high school sports were originally about “being apart of something bigger than yourself, and representing your school”, no matter what sport you played.

However, the trend has now shifted to a more predictable, and less innovative group of athletes. Shipman continued to state that he is seeing less and less multiple sport athletes coming in to the soccer program, who all contained that extra “layer” in playing ability — setting themselves apart from the others with their potential to creatively lead and compete no matter what the situation.

The reality is that being a specialized athlete really isn’t THAT advantageous as an involved parent may think. In fact, it’s the opposite.

Every now and then, I hear athletes around my high school argue that college coaches prefer kids to spend all of their time preparing for one sport. There are probably some coaches like that, but they are most likely in a large minority. More than having an acute, one dimensional, sport specific knowledge, college coaches are interested in one thing: how they COMPETE.

To put this in perspective, let’s use former USC football coach and current Seattle Seahawks coach, Pete Carroll as an example.

The first questions I’ll ask about a kid are, “What other sports does he play? What does he do? What are his positions? Is he a big hitter in baseball? Is he a pitcher? Does he play hoops?” All of those things are important to me. 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 really, really don’t favor kids having to specialize in one sport. Even here, I want to be the biggest proponent for two-sport athletes on the college level. I want guys that are so special athletically, and so competitive, that they can compete in more than one sport

We can now see that from Urban Meyer’s Elite College team all the way to PROFESSIONAL level, recruits are picked not by their experience and understanding of a single sport, but rather their ability to adapt to all types of competition.

Not only is being an experienced individual at only one sport not beneficial, it’s also proven as harmful.

A study by Ohio State University found that children who specialize early in a single sport led to higher rates of adult physical activity. Moreover, in a study of 1200 youth athletes, Dr. Neeru Jayanthi of Loyola University found that early specialization is also one of the strongest predictors of injury.

Athletes who specialize were in fact 70% to 93% more likely to be injured that children who played multiple sports!

Of course, as a parent, you are obliged to be concerned with your child’s success. But the reality is that success will find its way on its own, and doesn’t need to be guided in one specific direction. That’s the beauty of sports.

As a child, just by going outside and playing a variety of sports whenever you feel like it, is ultimately the way to go. In free play, kids play multiple positions, and focus solely upon the enjoyment and fun of the sport. They are allowed to be creative, play fearlessly, and rely solely upon themselves for the motivation to pursue a sport.

Although the point of this essay is to get you to realize that children are being more and more stressed towards playing one sport, whether they like it or not; there is still hope. People are starting to realize the repercussions of playing a sport every day of the year just for the sole reason of “getting better” — or so they say.

Here in St. Paul, Minnesota, a non profit organization called “Joy of the People” was founded for the sport of soccer. As the name says, this organizations philosophy is to promote the idea of healthy, free play, and instill the fact that “Joy” should come with playing the sport. Feel free to take a look at their page about the “science of free play”.

As a specialized athlete myself, I have already fell into the trap that so many others my age have, but I make sure to keep myself in a place where I’m happy and healthy. Whenever I feel like I need a break from tennis for a month or two, I take one. I still make time to have fun and play other sports with my friends. THAT is the key to taking ownership in a sport that you are passionate about.

There are many paths to mastery. In any sport. There is no formula to success, but it’s ultimately up to the parent to encourage the child to try different things to promote a better chance of finding a sport he/she loves.

After reading this, I urge you to consider these ideas and apply them to your life. You’ll be Joyful.

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