As sports competition at the professional level becomes fiercer, young kids and student-athletes are specializing in a single sport at progressively earlier ages. Often times, they are coerced by their parents and other influential adults to specialize, so they are competition-ready by the time they enter high school. Also, club sports programs are more accessible to younger kids today, indirectly putting pressure on them to begin training earlier. Although athletics offers many mental, physical, and social benefits to children during their developmental years, specializing in a single sport can have negative consequences.
Negatives of High School Sport Specialization
Specialization, as opposed to playing multiple sports, has been a growing trend among pre-adolescents. The argument for specialization revolves around being prepared for competition during later years, such as in high school. This is when a student-athlete’s developed prowess can provide tangible returns, such as increased eligibility for college sports scholarships, and possible recruitment by professional sports organizations. These outcomes provide powerful incentives for both child-athletes and their parents to pursue mastery of a single sport. However, if these same student-athletes attain a more rounded athletic history, they may successfully avoid challenges that arise during high school.
Only seven percent of high school athletes are recruited by colleges. That means the vast majority of athletes will not move on to compete at the collegiate level, and it’s crucial they understand that possibility. Rejection can be a devastating blow to a specialized athlete who is dedicated to becoming a collegiate or professional player. Athletic administrations often witness the student-athletes struggle to find their larger purpose, because they never considered life outside their sport. To resolve this issue, more interscholastic programs are educating parents and coaching staff on the importance of athletic, academic, and social balance.
Young athletes who play multiple sports prior to high school gain athletic benefits and, simultaneously, avoid the pitfalls of specialization. Multi-sport athletes learn how to compete in different environments, exercise diverse muscle groups, create varying strategies, interact cohesively, and easily transition between activities outside of athletics. Participation in multiple sports lends itself to a balanced lifestyle, where specialization can limit an athlete’s growth. To counteract the trend toward sports specialization with its associated consequences, interscholastic athletic administrations are promoting participation in more than one sport before and during high school.
Specialization is shown to place unhealthy pressure on young athletes. They may be compelled to play a sport they may discover later isn’t their passion as they enter competitive years. Burnout is a common occurrence in high school as athletes lose their excitement and drive to continue in the same sport. Not meeting expectations, and endless repetition can transform a positive sports experience into stressful work. Athletes who lose the desire to compete aren’t doing their school, their team, or themselves any favors by continuing.
Athletic administrations with healthy programs encourage athletes to participate in at least one other sport, even if it isn’t competitive. Urging track and field athletes to swim, or baseball players to play a weekly game of football, can offer a reprieve from the usual activities. Pressures that lead to athletic burnout can simply be avoided by occasionally participating in another sport.
Over-organization is another pitfall of sports specialization that athletic administrations should be wary of. Although rigidly controlling diet, sleep, exercise, and daily tasks can promote athletic growth, interscholastic athletes are at a critical point in their physical and mental growth that requires flexibility and freedom. High school is a time when student-athletes learn how to self-organize and learn about independence. If they aren’t allowed the time to develop separate lives from their specialized sport, they could stunt their emotional and social growth.
For the most part, multi-sport athletes have a better opportunity to balance and maintain their own schedules. This enables them to learn valuable organizational skills. Scheduling practices, communicating between coaches, tracking performance progress, and solving unique problems benefits them as both athletes and individuals. Multi-sport athletes are usually better prepared for life outside of athletics, instead of needing to rely on a detailed plan that tells them what to do.
Injuries from Overuse and Repetition
Among the most dangerous consequences of sports specialization is the occurrence of physical injury due to overuse. High school athletes and younger participants are particularly susceptible to injury because of the ongoing growth of their bodies. Repetitive, specialized drills put stress on specific bodily areas—joints, muscles, tendons, and bones. For example, if baseball players only practice throwing, then they are putting their arms and shoulders in danger of irreparable damage. To prevent this type of injury, they can participate in another sport, such as soccer, that offers a reprieve from upper body repetition while strengthening their core and legs.
Successful athletic administrations educate their coaches and staff about the dangers of overuse and repetitive drills on the adolescent body. Coaches can avoid these injuries by creating a balanced practice schedule that emphasizes stretching, rest, and full-body movements. Multi-sport athletes naturally benefit from participating in a wide range of exercises. Not only do they avoid injury from overusing certain muscles, but they can also increase their overall performance in every sport.
Diversify the Athletic Portfolio
Athletes who participate in multiple sports often discover success on multiple levels. Competing in one sport only offers so many chances to feel successful, and it can be harder to reach success as the level of competition rises. Playing multiple sports encourages the setting and achieving of multiple goals, instilling athletes with more confidence. If they are experiencing difficult challenges in one sport, these athletes can still build their confidence through successes in another sport. This strategy reflects an important balancing act that works to prevent burnout, stunted social growth, and injuries associated with sports specialization.
The Ohio University online Master’s in Athletic Administration (MAA) program specializes in developing interscholastic Athletic Directors, building on the students’ passion for serving young student-athletes and running a highly-successful athletic department. Ohio University is a pioneer in sports education. By establishing the first academic program in the field of sports administration, this online program is recognized today as the premier professional training program for candidates seeking careers in the sports industry.
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