By Dev K. Mishra
Specialization is common and accepted in most professions. At some point in time Albert Einstein probably decided to focus on theoretical physics, Tom Brady focused on football rather than baseball, and Yo-Yo Ma chose the cello over the double-bass. The world is better for their decision.
When is the right time in a person’s life to specialize? Much has been written about specialization in youth sports and there are persuasive arguments made for and against the practice. We’ve seen a recent article in the New York Times about the U.S. Soccer Federation’s move toward year-round single-sport commitment for their elite boys in their Academy program that will prohibit these players from participating in high school sports. Some argue that this model will create the best chance to make world-class soccer players, and others argue that taking away a chance to play high school soccer deprives these players of a critical part of their social development.
Whatever the “answer” to the question of specialization happens to be, the tone of the governing bodies of certain sports is clearly that if you are any kind of decent athlete you better do it our way.
But what if a young athlete doesn’t want to specialize? Is the notion of a multi-sport athlete “wrong,” antiquated or even dead?
My feeling, without any data to support this, is that there are plenty of multi-sport athletes still out there and that high school sports are the best environment for these young athletes to compete.
Let’s stay for a moment on the subject of high-level boys soccer. I know of two examples in our community of talented young athletes who decided to pursue what makes them happiest for now, and that’s to stay with several sports. One young man, recently a Regional ODP selection for soccer also happens to be a very promising distance runner. Another boy, formerly a Regional ODP selection for soccer also plays high school football and is a 6-handicap golfer. Single-sport specialization would rob them of experiences they enjoy. These are only two out of thousands of examples across the country. Can we really find fault in the pursuit of happiness? And are they somehow second-rate soccer players for choosing not to specialize?
These are very personal issues and I don’t claim to be an expert on the best way to develop a child. But I do like the idea of sports choice and I don’t like the idea of forcing anyone down a pathway that’s not of their choosing.
If a talented young musician, dancer, artist, mathematician, or athlete shows the drive and discipline to pursue specialization that’s great. Let’s provide the appropriate channels for them to pursue what they’d like to do. And if they don’t want to specialize I hope we can still give them opportunities to explore and advance their skills without making them feel marginalized.
Who is the high school athlete? She’s the small-town athlete who plays volleyball in the fall, basketball in the winter, and runs track in the spring. He’s the suburban athlete with access to every possible resource who doesn’t want to do just one thing. She’s a good but not “great” talent who couldn’t make the cut for the travel team in softball. And he’s the elite level multi-sport athlete.
In my mind it’s not so much about right or wrong, it’s about providing opportunity. In the reality of today’s club youth sports environment I hope high school sports continue to give young athletes the choices they deserve.
(Dr. Dev K. Mishra is the creator of the SidelineSportsDoc.com injury management program for coaches. He is an orthopedic surgeon in private practice in Burlingame, Calif. He is a member of the team physician pool with the U.S. Soccer Federation and has served as team physician at the University of California, Berkeley. This article first appeared on SidelineSportsDoc.com.)