Top high school athletes generally participated in two or three school sports
a generation ago. One-sport athletes, particularly in large high schools,
are becoming the norm. State athletic associations have attempted to discourage
athletes from specializing in one sport by establishing beginning and ending
dates for all sport seasons and by placing limits on off-season activities
for coaches and athletes. In addition, some high schools limit use of school
athletic equipment and facilities to the sport season and promote sport diversification
in school handbooks and other materials for students, coaches, and parents.
Despite these efforts, the number of one-sport athletes at the high school
level appears to be steadily increasing.
This increase is due to a number of factors. First, specialization
is perceived as a means to improve performance in a chosen sport. By applying
themselves to one sport year round, athletes have the opportunity to become
the master of one sport rather than a 'jack" of many. High school athletes
who hope to receive a collegiate athletic scholarship may view specialization
as the price they will have to pay.
Second, some coaches promote specialization in their programs. One
reason is to protect top players from injury in another sport. Coaches may
also encourage specialization to keep up with others who promote it in their
programs or to increase their chances to win championships. They reason that
if players give all their attention to a sport 12 months a year, they will
be better off than if they only practice during the season. Finally, coaches
may encourage specific players to specialize, hoping that those players will
achieve the level of proficiency to attract scholarship offers and bring
recognition to both the program and the coach.
Third, parents may encourage early specialization to push their children
to excel. They may believe that early specialization will provide a "jump"
on the competition which will pay off in later years. Some of this push from
parents may be in response to the demands of sports which have early peak
years, such as women's gymnastics.
Finally, both the attention of the media on elite athletes and the
lavish salaries of professional athletes have reinforced the attractiveness
of early specialization. With baseball players signing $3-million-per-year
contracts, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association signing billion-dollar
television contracts, the financial benefits of early specialization appear
quite lucrative for both athletes and athletic organizations.
Critics question whether specialization is the best option for most
high school athletes. The side effects can touch not only athletes, but coaches
and whole athletic programs. For example, specialization can increase in-fighting
among coaches for the best athletes in the school and reduce the talent pool
of athletes for all sports.
By specializing in one sport, athletes drop another from which they
may receive more enjoyment and success over the long run, and they miss out
on valuable contacts with coaches of other sports. During the course of a
season, these coaches may introduce transferable physical and conceptual
skills which could enhance athletes' performance in their primary sports.
In addition, those coaches often serve as important role models for students
developing personal value systems.
Finally, youth are generally not ready for the intensity that specialization
imposes. The additional stress can result in psychological and physiological
burnout. For example, early specialization in baseball tends to shorten rather
than lengthen players' careers.
In light of increasing specialization, what action--if any--should
high school athletic departments take? In a recent survey of 150 high school
athletic directors in California, approximately two-thirds of respondents
suggested that high school athletic departments adopt a proactive approach
in promoting sport diversification. Specifically, they recommended that multisport
participation be promoted in coaching and student handbooks and in communications
with parents. Given the pros and cons of specialization, high school athletic
directors perceive that encouraging athletes to pursue the path of multisport
participation is the best choice for both athletes and school athletic programs.
While the decision to specialize remains with athletes, high school
athletic programs have a duty to provide both athletes and parents with pertinent
information regarding the prudence of such a decision. This decision becomes
particularly important for minority athletes who may narrow their focus to
a single sport only to find that, once their dream of a professional athletic
career has ended, they have no other viable option to pursue.
In advising high school athletes considering specialization, it is
important to allow them the opportunity to consider the long-term effects
of the decision. The following questions have been developed to serve as
a stimulus for discussion between coaches and athletes considering specialization.
Their purpose is to help young athletes consider the many factors involved
in their decision. In the course of responding to these questions, it is
hoped that young athletes will seek the input and advice of their coach.
· 1. Why are you specializing?
What do you hope to gain from this decision?
· 2. Do you believe
that by specializing you will improve your chances for an athletic scholarship?
· 3. Have elite or
professional athletes in this sport generally specialized during high school,
or have they been multisport athletes?
· 4. Are there coaches
of other sports at this school whom you admire and respect? Would you consider
trying out for their teams in order to learn from those coaches?
· 5. Have you talked
to your parents about this decision? How do they or would they feel?
· 6. Would your choice
of whether or not to specialize be different if you knew now whether you
will eventually play college or professional sports? Why or why not?
· 7. Will the teams
in other school sports be affected by your absence? How?
Those advising young athletes have a responsibility to consider the
long-term welfare of each athlete. Unfortunately, coaches are under increasing
pressure to conduct de facto year-round programs to remain competitive. They
must remember, however, that their athletes will eventually leave high school,
with only a very small percentage ever achieving a career in sports. High
school coaches should not treat athletes like "mini professionals" with the
accompanying demand of specialization. Rather, coaches should encourage athletes
to develop diverse interests and skills so they will have many options as
they approach adult life. Clearly, participation in a variety of sports during
high school is one important step in that process.
Tom Fakehany, MLA on Mon Dec 18, 1995