One of the hottest issues in youth sports today is if and when a child should specialize in a specific sport.
Often when I visit one of the area schools to speak with coaches and athletic directors, the conversation tends to gravitate to this very topic. Sure, there are still plenty of high school athletes who play multiple sports, but the percentage of high school athletes who play two or three sports at the middle school, JV and varsity level has decreased since a generation ago. In 2016 at Northside Youth Organization, we had over 4,400 registrants and 2,300 families in our youth athletic program in the sports of girls’ basketball, boys’ basketball, baseball, cheer, football, and fast-pitch softball. Most of our kids, especially the young ones, participate in at least two sports, and many will even play three sports in our program. When I speak to parents at the park, most of them have one goal for their child: the opportunity to play a sport at the varsity level at one of our area schools. However, some parents inform me that they and their son/daughter have a goal to earn an athletic scholarship.
Whether the endgame is to make the varsity basketball team or to play in Major League Baseball, my advice is same: It is not necessary for a child to specialize in a sport before the 9th grade. Growing research points to reasons why kids shouldn’t specialize at a young age including overuse injury, burnout, and lack of overall athletic development, but I think the number one reason that a kid shouldn’t specialize in a single sport at a young age is because we do not know what that kid is going to be best at when he/she gets into high school. High school athletics is full of kids who peak early as well as late bloomers. Parents and kids should hedge their bets by sampling different sports at a young age.
What about the college recruiting process?
Although there are some cases where a young phenome is offered a college scholarship in middle-school (see NYO Alum and current Walton wide receiver Dominick Blaylock: http://www.scout.com/player/197139-dominick-blaylock), the chances of your child being offered a scholarship at all is slim, and the chance he/she will be offered one before high school is nearly 0%. In ten years as a high school basketball coach (girls and boys), I had the opportunity to coach eight Division I and nearly ten Division II scholarship athletes. Not one of those student-athletes had scholarship offers before high school. If a scholarship is the ultimate goal then go for it! Earning an athletic scholarship requires talent, hard work, dedication, and sacrifice. But remember, in most cases the athlete doesn’t choose the level (Division I, II, III, NAIA)/school. The level/school chooses the student-athlete. If your child hasn’t entered high school yet, please do not talk about college scholarships. If you have already started talking about “schollies,” please stop. Trust me.
WHY should I encourage my child to play multiple sports, especially at a young age?
- Decrease the chance of burnout. Kids want to play sports because they are fun. If a kid is burned out in a sport, he/she isn’t having fun.
- Reduce the risk of overuse injury.
- Playing multiple sports can lead to being a better overall athlete.
- Playing multiple sports on various teams can have social benefits including meeting new friends and sharing experience with a diverse group of children.
- Playing multiple sports teaches kids how to compete especially if a child isn’t considered a top player in a sport.
Tony Watkins serves as the Executive Director at Northside Youth Organization in Atlanta, GA.