By Howie Lindsey
When you hear the word diversity what comes to mind?
Skin tones? Political opinions? Socio-economic class?
Let’s add another: Athletics.
And no, for this article we aren’t addressing the importance of racial or cultural diversity within athletics teams, but rather the need for athletes to experience diversity in training methods and sports as they mature.
In covering college athletics for more than a decade, there are few words that elicit such a negative response as this one: Specialization.
What is specialization? Specialization, specifically sport specialization, is the increasingly common trend of young athletes picking one particular sport and training for that sport year-round. A nine-year-old seems to be particularly good at throwing a baseball so they work on pitching for 10-20 hours per week for the next eight straight years. With the potential for millions of dollars in professional contracts on the line, it is tempting for parents to become hyper-focused on a particular sport or activity for their child. Personal trainers are hired, camps are hyper-focused and the young athlete’s trajectory as a collegiate star is set in steel much like a freight train on the track heading toward a particular destination.
Anecdotal – and scientific – evidence suggests that specialization may be a mistake. College coaches will tell you the same.
Dozens of coaches at the elite college level – coaches like Louisville football coach Bobby Petrino, soccer coach Karen Ferguson-Dayes, baseball coach Dan McDonnell – not only have a distaste for sport specialization, they seem to prefer athletes who don’t specialize.
Longtime NFL veterans Eric Wood (Buffalo Bills) and Breno Giacomini (Houston Texans) came to Louisville as two-sport high school stars, playing basketball each winter after football season was complete. Former Louisville stars Michael Bush and Brian Brohm played three sports in high school. Bush now has a single-digit handicap in golf and is a ridiculously good bowler.
Minnesota Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng has been praised for his elite foot quickness for a 7-footer, and Dieng directly credits his youth as a soccer player.
Some of the best skill position players in Louisville’s current football program also ran track to increase speed and body-awareness. In women’s soccer and rowing, the top athletes are almost always multi-sport stars in high school.
And it’s not just Louisville coaches who prefer multi-sport athletes. At the professional level, we frequently hear pro coaches praise an athletes body awareness and balance, typically crediting participation in multiple sports other than their current profession.
How big of an issue is sport specialization? The NBA, led by NBA Vice President Kiki VanDeWeghe and NBA Director of Sports Medicine John DiFiori, published an op-ed in USA Today essentially encouraging kids to play something other than just basketball: “So what can we do about a youth sports culture that increasingly pressures boys and girls to play one sport year-round and causes parents to feel that their child will be left behind if they don’t go along? For starters, young athletes should … be exposed to multiple sports. …Avoid playing a single sport competitively year-round … and focus on skills development rather than structured competition.”
That sentiment distilled in its simplest form? Diversity is best.
Medicine agrees. In a paper published in 2013 in the Sports Health discipline in the National Library of Medicine, a group of five doctors led by Neeru Jayanthi concluded: “For most sports, there is no evidence that intense training and specialization before puberty are necessary to achieve elite status.”
Further, that study found “Risks of early sports specialization include higher rates of injury, increased psychological stress, and quitting sports at a young age.”
There are certainly many examples of child prodigies who become superstar pros – golfers like Tiger Woods and Ricky Fowler, dozens of tennis stars, figure skaters and, of course, gymnastics.
But a 2007 study of 4,000 Olympic athletes found that the average starting age in their chosen sport was 11.5 years old. That’s after some American families have made the decision to forgo all other sports and concentrate on one particular sport.
A study of 708 minor league professional baseball players showed that although their mean starting age was 6 years old, the players’ mean age of specializing in baseball was 15 years. The majority (52 percent) didn’t concentrate on baseball full time until the age of 17.
As a parent, you can take two things from all this:
1. Your fifth-grader can pick up a new sport tomorrow and still be an Olympian.
2. To be a success at the college or professional level, you do not need to play one sport year-round throughout high school.