A HUGE discussion was brought out by Keir Wenham-Flatt with this tweet – I encourage you to read all the branches this tweet spurred
In fact, Tony Holler, a coach I highly respect and enjoy his work, blocked me because I disagreed with his opinion on this topic, and instead of having an intelligent discourse, he blocked me and proceeded to tweet negative things about me... heartbreaking
So, here are some random thoughts on specialization
1. First I want to make it clear, I don’t think anyone is truly pushing specialization - in the terms that specialization actually exists. THIS is where I think many of these coaches go wrong – if they’d actually read the literature on specialization, they’d know that it points to NOT specializing at young ages (7-13), and instead to get involved in many athletic endeavors – and this is something I don’t think anyone is disputing.
Again if you’ve read the literature, it actually points to encouraging specialization around ages 16-18 – well guess what – That’s a sophomore through senior in HS. So if a HS kid is passionate about a sport and wants maximize his/her ability in that sport – the literature actually supports this decision.
So, that’s the difference – when to specialize, NOT if specializing is bad. I think we all agree 7-12 year olds should be exposed to as many athletic events as possible. Understand that a 7-12 year old specializing is vastly different than a 16-18 year old specializing.
2. Let's Try an Example
We have Johnny and Billy - both are HS Juniors.
Johnny was blessed with the genetic lottery - He’s a very gifted athlete. Football is his primary sport, with a scholarship on the way. He also plays basketball and track. Johnny is a 9/10 football player, and even though he only plays basketball during the season (3-months out of the year), he still manages to be a 7/10 basketball player because of his raw athletic ability. Physically dominant kids like Johnny can afford to be less technically & tactically skilled in their lesser sports and still be good – hence why he is a 7/10 with only playing basketball 3-months out of the year.
And remember - When you're a good athlete you get pulled into multiple sports. It's not that playing multiple sports causes one to become a good athlete - it's being a good athlete causes one to be pulled to play multiple sports.
Billy on the other hand was not blessed with superior genetics, he's a pretty average athlete. Billy loves basketball; it’s his passion and his ultimate goal is to play college basketball - ultimately he realizes DI is out of the question and DIII is his likely route - but that shouldn't be any less of a reason to pursue this goal.
Unfortunately for Billy, he’s only a 6/10 basketball player.
So, how can Billy compete with Johnny in basketball???
Well, Billy decides to specialize in basketball. He improves his basketball specific skill set, IQ, specific perception, and learns the nuances of the game that can only come from accumulating time in that sport.
Basketball season comes around and now Billy is a 7/10 – he now has a chance to compete with Johnny. If he played multiple sports, he’d still be a 6/10 and wouldn’t see the court.
By his senior year, Billy has raised himself to a 7.5/10 basketball player, good enough to be a starter and earn an opportunity to play at the DIII level.
Who is to say this is the wrong path for Billy?
I can hear the critics – But he’ll burnout, that doesn’t sound fun, he’ll never be as athletic if he played multiple sports, etc.
But I ask – who led this situation?
It was athlete led; Billy decided this is what HE wanted, and it is wrong for an adult to criticize his decision – and this is where I get frustrated.
3. The language I see used by coaches needs to change.
Athletes NEED to run track; they MUST play basketball; they HAVE to play baseball. If you're under 6'6 and don't have a basketball scholarship yet - you NEED to be playing football (these are real quotes from coaches - publicly displayed on Twitter)
Ever thought for a second that the athlete just doesn’t like those sports? That they don't like track or football or any other sport?
My argument is how is this any better than the AAU coach saying the same thing?
We get pissed if an AAU coach says - If you want to play college basketball you NEED to play AAU. If you want to get noticed by college coaches you HAVE to play AAU.
It’s the same thing – it’s an adult with an agenda trying to lead the decision.
Athletes should be encouraged to play multiple sports – no doubt. But coaches shouldn’t FORCE or MAKE HS athletes play multiple sports. If a kid doesn’t like a sport, stop trying to push them to do it.
A who cares if a kid wants to play hoops all year long, and they’re only 5’11 – if it’s athlete led and the kids passion – awesome.
4. If a HS kid can start to specialize his/her education, then why not sports?
Junior and senior HS kids are asked what careers they’d like to pursue and encouraged to specialize their schoolwork towards those careers.
My junior and senior year, I don’t think I took an English class; instead I loaded up my schedule in the math and sciences because that’s what I enjoyed.
Why is it different for sports?
Or how about this - why don't college or professional athletes play multiple sports?
If playing multiple sports is the panacea of athletic development - why don't athletes post HS do it?
5. What classifies as playing multiple sports?
I have a number of Jr. & Sr. football players who don’t play another sport but play pick-up basketball 2-3 days a week. I have college basketball players that golf 2-3 days a week. Does playing a wide variety of games in the backyard as a youngster count multiple sports?
Does this negate specialization?
6. A final piece and hardest for people to come to terms with – Specialization works!
When done right, specializing has worked for tons of athletes all over the world. Look at sports like gymnastics, swimming/diving, tennis, soccer, golf, basketball, baseball - the majority of the athletes in these sports have specialized from a young age. Look at countries who send little kids to specialized camps from a young age to groom them into Olympians.
7. Clearly it is much more complex than
specialization = bad
multiple sports = good.
And that’s how this whole thing got started – coaches with an agenda (yes I said agenda) trying to get better athletes to play their sport.
At the end of the day kids should define their own athletic experience.
Trust me, I played 3 sports in HS and couldn’t imagine only playing a single sport in HS – but I also understand everybody is different and kids should lead the decision-making process.