By Ken Reed

Kids love the Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry. They are mesmerized by his skills and they want to grow up and be like him.

Youth and high school coaches, most notably club sports coaches, are well aware of Curry’s popularity with young athletes. And too many of these coaches utilize Curry’s popularity to persuade young athletes (and their parents) to specialize in a single sport (in this example, basketball), saying it’s the only way they can maximize their athletic talents and have a chance to be like Steph.

The truth is, in the vast majority of cases, specializing in one sport as a young athlete is the wrong way to go. Kids that specialize get injured more often, burn out on sports at a higher rate, and don’t go as far in their favorite sport as multi-sport athletes.

In a Wall Street Journal article earlier this year, reporter Ben Cohen wrote:

“In an age of hyper-specialization, Curry has reached the pinnacle of his sport by doing the exact opposite (of specialization). He played basketball, but he also played some baseball, football, soccer and basically everything else in a sports buffet. What worked for Curry, experts say, could work for everyone.”

Here’s the deal: In most cases, young multi-sport athletes become better athletes in their late teens and early adult years than do their specializing peers. Studies have shown that in the long-term, multi-sport athletes advance further than single-sport athletes do.

Here’s a snippet of some of the evidence against specialization:

A study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences in 2013 looked directly at the youth sports specialization issue. The study found that young athletes who competed in three sports at ages 11, 13, and 15 were significantly more likely to compete at an elite national level in their preferred sport than those who specialized in only one sport at the ages of 11, 13, and 15.

In another study, from 2012, also published in the Journal of Sports Sciences, young male athletes who participated in multiple sports were found to be more physically fit, have better gross motor coordination, more explosive strength, and better speed and agility than those who specialized in a single sport. The reason multi-sport athletes, over time, become better athletes in their ultimate sport of choice, according to lead study author, Job Franzen, is that boys participating in more than one sport are exposed to a greater number of physical, cognitive, affective, and psycho-social environments than boys participating in one sport only. According to Franzen, multi-sport athletes possess a broad range of physical, personal, and mental skills that help them to be successful when they start specializing in a single sport later in adolescence.

Another factor for young athletes and their parents to consider is single-sport specialization beats down the body and leads to more injuries.

A University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health study recently found that high school athletes that specialize in one sport sustain lower-extremity injuries at a significantly higher rate than athletes who don’t specialize in a single sport.

“While we have long believed that sport specialization by high school athletes leads to an increased risk of overuse injury, this study confirms those beliefs about the potential risks of sport specialization,” said Bob Gardner, NFHS executive director.

The proliferation of youth club sports organizations in this country is fueling the specialization craze and the negative consequences that too often follow.

In a piece on the ills of youth sports specialization, Joe Haefner of the website Breakthrough Basketball wrote the following:

“Unfortunately, in today’s world, many of the pressures to specialize is driven by the youth sports business. Club sports are rejecting players who don’t commit to 6-month, 9-month, and even 12-month programs.

“Additionally, misinformation of specialization is being spouted to the parents. And the ultimate fear of ‘Your child might get behind’ is usually the number one tactic whether it’s well-intentioned or not.”

The majority of youth and high school coaches and administrators have “the best interests of the kids” as their number one priority. However, some of them are simply misinformed when it comes to the perceived benefits of sports specialization. They also underestimate — or are unaware of — the negative consequences (injuries, burnout, lack of wholistic skill development, etc.) of specialization. They honestly believe having young athletes specialize in a single sport is best for the kids under their guidance. They’re simply wrong, not evil. They need to be educated, not removed.

However, other coaches and administrators — most often found in club sports organizations — are driven by considerations apart from what’s best for the kids, most notably revenue and profit considerations. These coaches sell parents on the dream of college athletic scholarships and Olympic team roster spots. They want kids paying them to play year-round in their single-sport club programs. They create numerous offerings, like sport-specific personal training sessions, to produce more income for their clubs. They encourage and push young athletes and their parents to specialize in one sport, and to do it with their clubs (sometimes threatening kids and parents with the loss of a club roster position). These coaches and administrators disingenuously blow smoke up the rear-ends of parents about the athletic potential of their children in order to get more money out of the parents’ wallets. In many cases, these kids simply don’t have the required baseline athletic ability to ever start on their high school varsity teams, let alone earn an athletic scholarship down the road.

It’s these coaches and administrators — win-at-all-costs and profit-at-all-costs coaches and administrators — that need to be weeded out of the youth and high school sports scene.

The sooner the better.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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