Jan 29, 2015
Skipping Specialization

By Nate Dougherty

In many places, the three-sport high school athlete is an endangered species. Whether it’s fall baseball, indoor soccer in the winter, or summer volleyball leagues, more young athletes are being pressured into choosing one sport to play year round. This becomes especially important when college scholarships are on the line and student-athletes are more or less forced to pick one sport just to keep up with competitors.

But Eric Braun is bucking conventional wisdom. A senior at Pinckney (Mich.) Community High, Braun decided to play basketball in the winter rather than focus on preparing for the upcoming track season. Though he admits basketball isn’t his best sport, he knew he could fill a leadership role that would be more important than practicing wind sprints for spring track.

“I considered not playing basketball, but with my position on the team as a leader, I didn’t want to let a group of guys down that I had been playing with forever,” Braun told the Livingston Community News.

Critics say the pressure to attend camps and play a primary sport all year is taxing on young athletes and can lead to overuse injuries. It’s an issue William Rose, MD, a Middletown, N.Y., physician, has seen firsthand. In the past few years he’s treated a growing number of young athletes, which he attributes to the specialization trend.

Rose says the pressure to stand out among college recruiters–about one in every 58 high school student-athletes will get some kind of scholarship money–is leading many young athletes to burn out. Because of this, minor injuries can eventually become serious joint and ligament problems.

“When kids get injured, my biggest challenge is getting them to stop,” Rose told the Times Herald-Record. “They look at me like, ‘Stop everything?’

“Yes!” Rose tells them, “for a week or two.”

The push against specialization is something Justin Sorensen has also taken to heart. The soccer-loving youth decided to give football a go in high school and became one of the country’s most accomplished place-kickers. He booted a 62-yard field goal, the Utah state record, and has accepted a scholarship to play for BYU next season. Sorenson said he’s learned a lot from playing soccer, especially about team dynamics.

“Soccer, for me anyway, is a lot more team-oriented,” Sorensen told The Salt Lake Tribune. He added that football doesn’t seem as team-oriented, at least for a kicker. “We’re kind of the lonely, outcast losers,” he joked. “[Soccer is] a little more relaxed. It’s not all on you.”

Despite the pressures on young athletes to specialize in one sport year-round, some schools are fighting back against the trend. South Lyon (Mich.) High School actually allows student-athletes to play two sports in a single season, declaring a primary sport which takes precedence over the secondary sport. It also gives an Ironman award to student-athletes who play three sports for all four years.

Even though they may fall behind competitors in the college scholarship quest, student-athletes who play multiple sports find other benefits. Take Denzel Benson, a senior at North Side High School in Fort Wayne, Ind. As a freshman he was doing poorly in classes, and the school’s baseball coach made a deal that if the grades improved Benson could be the team’s manager. It worked–his grades went up, and the next season Benson played on the j.v. squad.

For Benson, playing three organized sports during his high school tenure–he also played basketball and football, which he plans to play when he goes on to Anderson University next year–helped keep him focused on his studies.

“I used sports to motivate me,” he told The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne. “I did my work in class, stayed up and stopped sleeping in class. I did what I had to do. Sports really motivated me to do everything, to respecting my coaches to coming out here and doing everything out here for these guys even though I wasn’t the best player out there.”

Nate Dougherty is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.


I see many athletes who do club sports at the same timd as varsity sports and there is a definite conflict. These athletes believe they will be seen by more scouts if they play club soccer year around. They play 6-7 days/week and come to me for various overuse type injuries. Some will not give up either sport. They may play club soccer and high school basketball during the same season or year round softball – going into club after a school season with no break. Parents pay high fees for club sports and believe their kids will been seen by more scouts if they participate in club sports.

Many of these athletes do not participate in weight training because they are always in a season. Some have been injured and decided to eliminate one. Some continue to play through minor injuries and parents push them to continue to play. These are 14-17 y.o. athletes and their bodies breakdown from overtraining. I continue to treat sprains and strains that will not get better because the athlete and parent continue to push. It is unfortunate trying to specialize has its price

– P.J. Gardner, MS,ATC Athletic Trainer Colorado Sports & Spine Centers Liberty High School

I am a athletic development coach and I, generally, do not accept two or more sport athletes into my program. I expect my athletes to have an off-season of at least two months and take periodic one week rest breaks.

What is the result of this requirement? Over the past 15 years nearly 90% of my athletes have received an athletic scholarship or have been accepted into Ivy League schools because of their athletic talents.

Multi-sport athletes have a lot of fun, generally stay healthy, and 99.9% of them are done after high school. There is room for both approaches, mediocrity and excellence.

– Mark Hoffman

I am pleased to see more athletes choosing to participate in multiple sports. Both physicians and rehab specialists are reporting alarming increases in the number of young athletes who have injries that we used to see almost exclusively in collegiate or professional athletes. Athletes who participate in sports year round, but vary what they play, have fewer overuse and chronic injuries than those who participate in one sport. What is less often discussed is the psychological issues that accompany athletes who place all of their focus on one sport.

A growing number of collegiate coaches are taking a new look at multisport athletes. During a recent strength and conditioning conference I attended, the strength and conditioning coach from a Big 10 university reported that they see fewer strength deficits in their new recruits who participate in multiple sports. Each sport has different physiologic demands and motor skill requirements. Multi-sport participation helps develop athleticism by allowing the athlete to train in a variety of ways.

I really hope this trend of multi-sport participation continues.

– Brad Kruse PT, DPT, OCS, SCS, ATC, CSCS Instructor, Physical Therapy Department Clarke College

I’m a 63 year old former Syracuse University basketball player who, upon retirement from my 31 year “real career” in Labor Relations, gained primary and advanced personal training certifications as well as a NSCA CSCS. Although I work primarily with a senior population, I read with great interest the literature on training in youth sports and have attended a number of seminars where the subject of early specificity of training is examined. Unless I’m seriously misunderstanding the literature and the concept of periodization applicable to any sport, it seems to me that the whole concept of contemporary periodization is to provide varying stimuli at different points in the training cycle which would incorporate different movements and training intensities to maximize response to training inputs while avoiding the pitfalls of overtraining. It would typically start with general fitness and hypertrophy, transition to maximizing strength through higher intensities, then maximize power through explosive movements, moving toward activities that mirror the movements and energy demands of their particular sport. The macrocycles typically incorporate low-intensity, non-specific activities in post season recovery cycles. I’ve heard from presenting experts in sport training seminars on several occasions that parents with just enough knowledge to make them dangerous frequently demand that their young adolescent football player, for example, should be on the same weight training program used by the NY Giants, assuming that the program and specificity for advanced athletes would be appropriate for young athletes with a limited training age. I’ve also read and heard repeatedly that the best thing budding young athletes can do is to engage in a variety of sports and movement-based activities at a relatively early age to acquire and perfect a variety of movement skills and patterns, as well as avoid overuse injuries and burnout, that will serve them well in whatever sport they may ultimately specialize. Parents and coaches pushing too-early specialization through traveling teams and club sports seem to have lost sight of the benefits of multi-sport participation widely seen in past years. I’ve urged my son to have his kids participate in a wide variety of sports; run, jump and engage in vigorous play activities; make sure they have fun; and don’t tell them that we’re really doing bodyweight training and plyometrics and preparing them for future sports successes!

– Rex Trobridge

I agree that specialization is hurting the majority of high school athletes and the schools they play for. As a small high school of 430 students, we depend on our best athletes participating in more than one sport during the year to be successful. Our Booster Club awards a special award, the Letterman’s Award, to graduating seniors who have earned a varsity letter at least six times during their high school career. While it is true that you may be exposed to more scouts playing club year-round, it is also true that if you are good enough to play at the next level and are willing to do some leg work, you can receive scholarships and still play other sports for your high school. The vast majority of our former athletes who receive scholarships in college played multiple sports for us during high school.

Athletes who miss out on high school sports miss out on a once in a lifetime opportunity. Chances are that when they have reunions in 20 years it will be their high school class and teammates getting together, not the club teams that they thought were the answer.

– Craig Lee Athletic Director Berean Christian H.S. Walnut Creek, CA

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