Over the past few days there has been an interesting stat going around stating that 29 of 32 first round picks in the NFL draft were multi-sport athletes in High School. It’s a certainly an eye popping arrow in the quiver of the “kids shouldn’t specialize” proponents, but as is the case with most things, maybe we should pump the breaks on one size fits all type answers.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I certainly fall into the “kids generally shouldn’t specialize” camp. In fact, I even structured a volleyball training company around the idea! However, I also believe that each individual case is different and there are a lot of factors at play in the decision as to which activities a kid chooses. This article is not meant to give soapbox advice or even offer answers. I just want to offer some thoughts on both sides of the issue that are not often included in the discussion of specialization vs. multi-sport;

  1. There is a difference between specialization and focus. I take “specialization” to mean that the kid is doing nothing else other than one sport year-round. “Focus” means that while they are willing to participate in other things, they are focused on one. The multi-sport zealots often confuse the two and label anything short of 100% focus on the current season’s sport as “specialization”. I don’t see anything wrong with single sport focus and in fact those athletes that are going to play in college probably should be focused on the sport that is paying some of their tuition. Single sport focus is NOT the same thing as specialization. I think it is very healthy for that single sport focused kid to mix in another sport and have always encouraged it.
  2. A huge question for coaches is how dedicated to their secondary sport do you need a kid to be for it to be acceptable? This is a tough question and probably the one that poses the most issues and causes the most kids to make an either/or rather than both choice. Is the volleyball coach OK with one of their players missing practices to run in cross country meets if it means having another good athlete out for the team? Is the club soccer coach OK with a kid that can only make it to some tournaments because he’s got AAU basketball commitments?
  3. What is best for the kid? I am all about athletic development through playing multiple sports and I think there’s a huge psychological benefit to taking a break from your primary sport and maybe playing a season out of loyalty to your friends or school community. However, I also hate when I see kids being pressured to do everything by adults who seem to care more about winning in THEIR chosen sport than about what’s best for the kid. A kid’s athletic talent belongs to him or her, not the community. They are not being disloyal if they decide to sit out an activity that they aren’t passionate about and we shouldn’t be putting that on kids.
  4. Is there a real college future for a kid and might SOME specialization help them reach that goal? Yea, the 6’4 kid with a decent arm could probably help the high school baseball team, but if he doesn’t like the sport and an off season in the weight room and playing with a high-level AAU basketball team could get him the training and looks from colleges he needs to get a scholarship offer? Should we be calling out that kid for “specializing”?
  5. Why do we always forget about the kids that the multi-sport kid might be bumping out of their opportunity to play and shine? If the stud basketball player doesn’t play volleyball, someone else gets to play in that spot. She might not be as good and the team might not win as much, but isn’t that good for the other kid? Isn’t school based sports supposed to be about #morethanwins ???
  6. Why are sports the only focus in these conversations? Shouldn’t we be talking about Multi ACTIVITY kids? Debate, speech, school plays, music, FBLA, FFA, church groups…All of these things are beneficial but it’s pretty obvious that kids can’t do EVERYTHING and expecting them to do EVERYTHING is making them more anxious and neurotic than ever!
  7. Many kids who choose not to play a certain sport do so because they don’t think it’s fun. But kids in general are people pleasers and it’s much easier to say, “I’m not playing that so that I can focus on this” rather than, “I just don’t like that sport or the culture of it at our school isn’t very fun”. Many a coach that rue’s kids not coming out for THEIR sport blame specialization when the reality is, if they provided a more positive experience, kids would flock to it.

In the end, I strongly believe that multiple ACTIVITIES is the way to go, especially the younger the kid is. I also think it’s OK and even necessary for some kids to FOCUS on one main activity if they love it more than the others and/or have a future in it beyond high school. I think those focused kids should have other outlets though for cross training, character building, and a psychological break from the focus.

Furthermore, we as adults need to double check our own motives before we spout off generalizations about crazy parents, self-centered kids, and those darn club coaches MAKING kids specialize. I’ve found just as often that it’s kids just wanting to do their favorite activity more than other activities and that often times coaches of what could be a kid’s secondary sports drive them away with their demands and their degrading of the kid’s focus.

Last but not least, as with many things on social media, a meme based argument with one pithy stat doesn’t always carry a lot of water upon further investigation. Let’s be honest, is it really that shocking that 29 of 32 first round draft picks played multiple sports? We are talking about some of the best athletes in the world…of course they did multiple things because they were probably awfully good at multiple things and that makes it fun! It should also be noted that football is the single hardest sport to “specialize” in as there isn’t really a significant club system in place. Kids don’t really have the choice to play football year-round. Generally speaking, their best option for year-round training for football is weight room and conditioning…which translates very naturally to basketball and track. I’m betting the percentage of 1st round picks that were multi sport is still significant but lower in the NBA and way lower in baseball and hockey. I could be wrong, but I’ll keep an eye out for the meme’s! 😊