It is my belief that athletes high school aged and younger should be participating in multiple sports, if they want to. The key words in the previous sentence is if they want to. Some kids might genuinely be interested in participating in only one sport. If that is the reason behind their choice, that's fine. But we all could probably name a handful of kids off the top of our heads that are only playing one sport but would like to participate in more.
WHY ARE KIDS SPECIALIZING?
I don't have any real hard scientific facts to back up any of the reasons I'm about to give. But as a coach of 20+ years, a coach who is involved in many coaching organizations/groups, and is actively communicating with coaches, families, and athletes all the time, I feel I have somewhat of a feel for what is happening.
The most common reason I hear for kids specializing is the athlete has their eyes set on a college scholarship. The odds say that a scholarship isn't going to happen for them, but that doesn't mean they can't try to attain their goal of a college scholarship. My opinion is if that is what they want to do, then go ahead and try. But, I would ask, "Is specialization necessary to reach this goal?" The answer to that, in my opinion, is NO. As I stated earlier, I have no scientific facts to back up why an athlete shouldn't (or should) specialize in one sport. The closest thing I have is that I looked at ten random NCAA Division 1 women's basketball websites. I looked at the rosters and read the bios of each player. The bios typically include information about what the players did during their high school years, and will sometimes list other sports they played during that time of their life. I counted how many of these D1 women's basketball players played either one, two, or three sports during high school. Here are the results:
Players that did not list playing another sport in high school- 42 (38%)
Players that played two sports in high school -36 (33%)
Players that played three or more sports in high school - 32 (29%)
*I don't claim these numbers to be an example of all NCAA Division 1 women's basketball players. These are from 10 random teams I chose to look at. Also, I do not know if players gave all the information for their bio. As you know some people fill bio sheets out in more detail than others. I do feel the numbers show that athletes that did not specialize in one sport were still able to reach their goal of a D1 scholarship as 62% of these athletes participated in more than one sport.
Another possible reason that younger athletes are starting to specialize could be how their high school coaches run their programs. High school league rules vary from state to state as to how much work a high school coach can do with athletes outside the actual season. This is one factor that plays in to how many sports a young athlete participates in. Some coaches do pressure their athletes to take part in their off-season activities, whether that pressure is implied or direct, varies as well. But some do apply it. If an athlete is receiving some type of pressure to take part in these it is then natural for the athlete to feel they have to take part in these workouts. This can cause a conflict between two or more sports an athlete would like to participate in.
School size can also be a factor make a specialization decision. If an athlete attends a large school there are obviously more kids to choose from for the high school team. Because of this an athlete could develop the idea that they must choose one sport and stick with it in hopes that if they work at this one enough they will be good enough to make the varsity team. In smaller schools coaches from different sports need to share their athletes due to the fact there aren't as many potential players. Coaches from different sports should work together as best they can to make sure their athletes don't have to choose one sport over the other during the summer months (off-season). If coaches schedule their off-season activities at the same time then the athletes have to choose. The coaches are putting the athletes in a tough position. Because of this the chance that an athlete chooses to play just one sport over the other exists. Be careful coaches and work together so you are not putting your athletes in a position to choose one sport.
IS THERE A SOLUTION?
My opinion is that this is far from a quick fix. To help the situation I do feel that we need to be mindful of the following to help prevent specialization at a young age:
1. Parents and coaches need to remember that it's about the kids. It's not about the parent living through their child. And it certainly is not about the coach. Ask the kids what they want to do.
2. Give the younger people exposure to a variety of sports. Let them try as many sports as they like growing up. In the end they will gravitate to the ones they like most.
3. High school coaches need to work together. Promote the positives of having multiple sport athletes in your school. Don't monopolize the athletes in your school - share them. You can still get enough work in with your sport and still allow them to work at others. Don't worry, you will have athletes that work a lot more at your sport than the other(s), but let them make that decision.
4. Continue to stay up to date on studies that are done on the benefits of playing multiple sports.
I know there are many athletes out there that specialized in one sport and are glad they did. I also know of athletes that specialized in one sport but wished they hadn't. In the end this is a personal or family decision. Whatever you decide to do, think it through from all angles. And always remember, it's about the kids.