"If these kids are hearing they need to specialize in one sport, it's mostly because of business and the ego around these coaches. You have a lot of untrained or minimally trained adults basically either building their business of club sports, or you have leagues and teams and coaches who only care about their own wins and losses. But, the truth is exactly what your numbers say. Playing other sports makes a lot of sense."
The previous quote comes courtesy of a recent ESPN article discussing one of the key findings of a survey of 128 NFL quarterbacks. The survey found that 122 of the 128 active and retired NFL quarterbacks polled (95 percent of them) played at least two sports in high school; and, nearly 70 percent played three or more, including both of this year's Super Bowl's starting quarterbacks, Russell Wilson and Tom Brady.
"The biggest mistake is to shut down everything else completely because you want to focus on being a quarterback. These kids think more is better. Bill Walsh told me many years ago: Don't mistake activity for productivity. More practice doesn't always mean more success."
That sounds strikingly similar to the arguments against specialization in other youth sports; and, the knock on the lack of teaching and growth that are almost wholly missing in the current model of AAU basketball. Just because you're in the gym or on the field doesn't mean you're necessarily getting better.
"Parents and kids who choose to specialize are chasing a dream that has a high failure rate; 6.5 percent of high school football players go on to play in college and .08 percent make it to the NFL, according to the NCAA. This trend belies a wide range of research that suggests specialization increases injury probability, accelerates mental burnout and withholds the benefits of cross-training."
Not to belabor the point, but, that's worth reading again: "Parents and kids who choose to specialize are chasing a dream that has a high failure rate; 6.5 percent of high school football players go on to play in college and .08 percent make it to the NFL, according to the NCAA. This trend belies a wide range of research that suggests specialization increases injury probability, accelerates mental burnout and withholds the benefits of cross-training."
I'd write it a third time, but, instead of beating you over the head, will reference a study from the Journal of Sports Sciences, also cited in the article, that found "a significant association between the number of sports participated in at the ages of 11, 13, and 15 and the standard of competition between 16 and 18 years. Athletes who played in three sports during their early teen years were significantly more likely to compete at a national, compared with club, standard between the ages of 16 and 18 than those who practiced only one sport."
It was also interesting to read that, "you see the push toward specialization in the cases of guys that are more marginal, the guys who are on a path toward a scholarship at San Jose State but want to go to a Michigan State instead." I guess "marginal" can be a relative term, as that would be San Jose State or Michigan State student-athlete is still one of the 6.5 percent (of the 1.1 million) of high school football players who will go on to play college football.
On the benefits of playing multiple sports, the article makes the point that, "being in competition, rather than just drills all the time, means something, pointing out, for example, that "playing shortstop provides the most complete element in baseball for quarterback training [because it] requires quick hands, natural hip turns and snap throws."
Locally, the argument against specialization is probably most appropriately applied to — and should be acknowledged and heeded by parents of — youth basketball and lacrosse players. For parents who push their kids because they themselves (the parents) never knew what it was like to compete: Burnout and fatigue, both physical and mental, are very real things, and, research continues to grow to support the reality that over-training and specializing in one sport, particularly one that requires repetitive movements, is causing kids to become more predisposed and likely to suffer sports-specific injuries: torn elbow tendons and shoulder socket injuries in baseball, and blown-out ACLs in basketball.
The oft-quoted John Wooden famously said that "sports don't build character, they reveal it." One of the benefits to playing multiple sports is not being the best player or athlete on the field in your complementary or supplemental sport.
Sure, it sounds counter-intuitive. But, it's true. Parents love to cheer their kids on when their kid is the best player on the team or on the court, and it's easy for a kid (and his parents) to enjoy the sport they're the best at. But, being bad, or at least not as good, at something, another sport in this context, teaches valuable lessons (to both the young athlete and his or her parents).
Aside from the sort of moral-styled, character-revealing lessons learned by playing multiple sports, the reality is that the broader base of sports experiences provides for greater context, and more opportunities for kids to learn lessons that crossover between sports and transcend them altogether.
Matt Laczkowski is a former University of North Carolina basketball player who writes a Monday column for the Times. Reach him at 410-857-7896 or email@example.com.