Is it wise for youth athletes to specialize in one sport?

Specialization in Sport
Specialization in Sport

By Brent Schwartz

If Bo Jackson was a high school athlete today, even with his immense talent in football and baseball, odds are there would be a coach saying, “Hey Bo, you need to pick one sport.”

That is what Chrishawn Cook heard as a budding athlete at Niles North.

“I tried to play football my freshman year of high school,” said Cook, a freshman basketball player at Southern Illinois University. “But coaches said I should concentrate on basketball. That helped me better my skills.”

Now, this question is being asked: is it better for all youth athletes to specialize in one sport?

“When you get to high school, you kind of have to specialize or you’re not going to be that dominant player in a particular sport, unless you’re that great of an athlete,” said Illinois AAU Tournament Director Brian Davis.

Davis, 44, played both football and basketball growing up, but in his 20 years of coaching local AAU basketball clubs, Davis has seen a change.

“For high school players, the AAU season is in the spring and summer,” said Davis. “And when the fall hits, they usually start up with their high school team and play up until the winter.

Basketball is one of the popular sports for specialization due to AAU basketball giving players a chance to play basketball at multiple levels throughout the year.

“AAU has changed the way kids approach the game,” said Niles North basketball assistant coach George Drase. “Almost every one of our players puts in a lot of time playing basketball over the spring and summer. The days of the good three-sport athletes in high school, those days are over. If a kid wants to be really good at a sport, they’re almost forced to choose one, and to stick with that.”

However, the NBA and USA Basketball corroborated to create the first ever youth basketball guidelines, which were posted on the NBA’s official website this past October. The first listed guideline states you should “delay single-sport specialization in the sport of basketball until age 14 or older.”

Furthermore, the guidelines state that “parents, coaches and event directors should be cautious in considering tournaments that schedule multiple competitive events in short periods of time., as high-density competition scheduling can increase risk for injury and burnout.” Davis agrees.

“You have to give your body and muscles a break, said Davis. “You can’t play all year round. That’s when sports injuries happen.”

So how much time should be spent in a certain sport, and at what ages?

John Sullivan’s eBook, entitled “Is It Wise to Specialize?” dives into a parent’s decision in pushing their children to stick to one sport year round, in order to improve and master certain skills.

In the piece, sports researchers Jean Cote and Jessica Fraser-Thomas provide a general blueprint for how young athletes should be guided into specialization in sport. According to the two, “prior to the age of 12, 80 percent of time should be spent in deliberate play and in sports other than the chosen sport. Then at the age of 16 or older, specialization then becomes very important, but 20 percent of training time should still be in the non-specialized sport and deliberate play.”

This doesn’t mean that parents and youth athletes are following this method.

“I think athletes are starting to specialize more because certain sports are taking over,” said Chad Fonville, a former Major League Baseball player from Jacksonville, North Carolina.

Fonville, 46, was a multi-sport athlete himself in high school, excelling in baseball, basketball, and soccer, before pursuing a professional baseball career.

“Parents today think and feel it’s better, due to their lack of knowledge, that playing one sport is the best way for a college scholarship,” said Fonville. “They also think staying away from combative sports like football and wrestling will help prevent injuries and concussions.”

Fonville says specialization in sport is something that has been partly caused by present-day parents, and how they differentiate from parents of his generation.

“Back in the day, we had parents that were parents to us!” said Fonville. “We looked up to our parents and wanted to earn and work hard in any sports. They weren’t our best friends. They were hard-nosed parents, who made us work for what we wanted. Parents today don’t do that.”

Fonville had been coaching high school baseball and basketball for the past few years, but has given up one due to frustration with parents.

“These parents listen to coaches that are telling the kids to play one sport to make it to the next level. That’s why I’m done coaching basketball,” said Fonville.

Clearly, the notion of sport specialization is met with mixed reviews from coaches, trainers, and directors in youth sports, as there are benefits and risks as a result of this method.

Some sports, like football, still see a litany of multi-sport athletes, as many football players participate in Track and Field to increase speed, endurance, and strength, or sometimes all three.

Soccer and baseball seem to be the most common sports when it comes to youth specialization, due to the different leagues that can be accessed.

NFL quarterbacks, such as Jameis Winston and Russel Wilson were successful college baseball players, and Notre Dame wide receiver Jeff Samardizja snubbed the NFL Draft to pursue a successful MLB career. Athletes with the ability to excel in multiple sports are still present, but at some point in their youth are being pressured to choose a certain sport.

Whether that trend will continue, or if it is definitely prosperous, remains to be seen.

Photo at top: Niles North junior guard Damaria Franklin in the middle of a jump ball to start the Libertyville regional championship against Notre Dame. (Brent Schwartz/MEDILL)