I want to start this post off with some quotes that are often used by proponents of specialization, whether that be athletes, employees, school or whatever it may be. “Jack of all trades, master of none.” is often quoted to provide justification for why it is better to be singularly focused on one thing rather than split your time amongst many things. Now, this isn’t a bad concept, in some areas of life it is better to be exceptional at one thing than average at a lot of things. However, the full quote is actually this “Jack of all trades, master of none. But oftentimes better than the master of one.” This quote changes the context a bit. Because in the second line it shows that it is far better to be well rounded than it is to only do one thing. If you are a great student, you are great at many subjects, but if you’re only good at Math you will struggle to do well overall. The same goes for sports. In this post I am going to talk about some of the pitfalls but also the benefits of specialization, timing for when it is appropriate and show some examples of how balance can help an athlete in any sport.
What is Sports Specialization?
Before I can talk about the positives and negatives of sports specialization, I need to talk briefly about what exactly it is. Sports specialization is when an athlete forgoes all or most other things in an attempt to focus in on ONE sport. Some athletes will quit all other activities unrelated to their sport of choice including clubs and sometimes as drastic as their social life being ONLY around their sport. This has become much more common in the US and other countries as people aspire for elite levels of sports. It is commonplace anymore to see children funneled into one sport as early as 5-6 years old. Many parents see success stories of athletes who claim to have only ever done that sport their whole life and assume that that’s the secret formula to success. But life isn’t that black and white, it’s 1000 shades of grey. Every athlete is different, that’s what makes athletics such a joy for children, except when they are pressured to be exceptional in one sport from a young age. Now that you have a brief idea as to what sports specialization is, let me explain the structure of this post.
Specialization: A Double Edged Sword
Now, one thing I want to preface is that I have a bit of a bias in this post as most as a bit of an “anti-specialization” individual but let me also say that at one point in my athletic career I was forced into a specialist, but that was after I had already competed a few years in high school at most of the sports I did. But specialization has its pros and cons like everything else. Done properly it can pay off but 90% of the time it is done too early and incorrectly which has a long-term adverse impact on the athlete, their performance, and their families.
The first point I am going to talk about is how Early Specialization overworks athletes in the long term. This can cause injuries, single dimensional athletes, cause burnout and quitting the sport entirely.
The second point is about how athletes who DON’T specialize tend to develop into better overall athletes and will often outperform specialists at higher levels once they find the sport they PREFER not what was chosen.
Next, I will discuss the concept of complimentary sports, something that is often harped on by higher level coaches rather than specialization. Sports that benefit one another are more fun for athletes and better long term anyway because success and familiarity are easier.
Finally, I will talk about the benefits of specialization once an athlete is in their teenage years. It is hard to tell what sports an athlete can and will succeed at when they are 5 years old. But when they are 14 you have a bit better of an idea about their genetics, their athletic abilities, and their preferences. Specialization becomes a sound option once you have developed into an athlete.
Overall, I want to say that I am not TOTALLY against specialization, just that it is often done improperly and causes more problems for the athletes than it is intended to. I understand parents mean well and only want the best for their athletes, but as a coach I also want the best for my athletes and often that puts me at ends with some parents. In this post I am going to explain many factors of what makes an athlete into an elite athlete but also discuss ways specialization can derail their career. I will cite some articles and provide resources for parents, coaches, and athletes to look at to help understand the concepts better. I hope you will read the whole post and give it a chance to understand how to help athletes love their sports, have fun, and become all they can be!
Early Specialization Overworks Athletes in the Long Term
So you want your athlete to focus on one sport for the rest of their life? It’s a personal choice but one that I should warn you comes with long term risks and rewards. The rewards are perhaps your athlete becomes a 1 in a million super star who dominates the world for years to come. The risks are your athlete gets hurt, lacks socialization, or quits the sport entirely before they have even finished high school. Specialization CAN work for some, but they are more the exception than the rule. There are many risks to Early Athletic Specialization, the three I will focus on will be; injuries, developing single dimensional athletes, and Pressure (sucking the fun out of it).
Injuries are probably the single most terrifying thing in athletics for all parties involved. Coaches, parents, and athletes alike fear injury and all feel the pain when an athlete is injured and unable to play the sport they love or play it at the level they can. I have been injured many times throughout my career, some sidelined me for weeks, some for months, some I competed through, but all of them had their impact. Injuries suck because sometimes there is absolutely nothing, we can do to prevent them, they just happen. However, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes injuries are a ticking time bomb, something that has built up over years and waits for the perfect time to take the train off the tracks, these types of injuries are called Repetitive Strain Injury or RSI for short.
RSI are a common thing in many facets of our lives because we do a lot of the same actions over the course of years. Think about how people who work on their hands and knees get injuries from that, or how those who use computers and mouses can develop carpal tunnel syndrome. It is the very same with athletes who specialize too early in their life. I coach wrestling myself, which is likely how you found this post. A common RSI for wrestling is knee issues due to the fact that we are constantly hitting our knee when we attack our opponent or wrestle on the mat. Track and Cross-country athletes can often build up stress fractures from impact on their legs over time, gymnasts their ankles and wrists, the list goes on. Every sport has their own Repetitive Strain Injuries but what makes specialization so much worse is that there is no alleviation of this risk. If an athlete plays multiple sports, i.e. a lot of my wrestlers play baseball (a non contact sport) and football (a padded contact sport) which can split up the time. This acts two fold to help prevent RSI in a way because it develops their bodies in different ways, a football player will take the full impact of a tackler to their legs and back area a lot, much of these impacts actually build up resistance within the muscles to sudden shocks. A specialist who doesn’t see this type of variation loses out on that ability to adapt their body in multiple ways.
Injuries can happen for a variety of reasons but most of which tends to cause these to happen is that the athletes just don’t get a rest from the sport. They never take a break from practicing and competing. You can desire success in a sport and not beat your body up day after day year after year. These injuries will not only derail success for that year/season but also can derail an entire career by undermining an athlete’s desire to do the sport overall. One of the largest causes of burnout is recurring injuries and the mental strain associated with them. If you want an athlete to love the sport they must be able to actually participate. Overwork is an easy way to cause multiple injuries in a period of time due to the limited ability to withstand repetitive action.
Take for example a sport like baseball. Perhaps early on in life an athlete was taller and stronger than others at their age, they become a pitcher and then in turn specialize on pitching. Eventually they forgo all sports to focus on baseball and they’re focused on pitching, a lot of wear and tear on their throwing arm especially in the current environment of baseball at all levels. The MLB this year the players were lobbying for playing less games yet we have youth athletes playing 4-5 games every weekend for 6 months straight. Not only is that a massive time commitment but a lot on the athletes physically as well. Now, if they play other sports that offer a break they can likely deal with this, but specialists who only focus on baseball will put themselves at significant risks of injury. This can easily be avoided by giving the athlete time to physically develop and have time to relax and try other sports as well which will also help avoid another massive issue that plagues athletes of all ages in all sports, becoming single dimensional.
Single Dimensional Athletes Don’t Win.
In athletics the athletes who have the most success typically aren’t the ones who played one sport their whole life. It’s the ones who used many sports to become an incredible athlete. Even from an early age coaches and parents identify the “athletic” kids. The ones who seem to be able to do anything and everything, most of these kids didn’t just stumble into it, they developed it. The ones who we encourage to try multiple sports, to take risks when playing freely etc. Putting focus on one sport, on one dimension of athleticism is how you wound up with an athlete who can do little more than their sport, and limited athletic ability in general. You see it all the time, kids who dominated others early in their athletic careers because they were more athletic than most initially, but then they are turned into specialist and lose that. Athletes who become well rounded athletes will dominate nearly any sport because you can’t really teach someone to be athletic. You develop athleticism by playing sports and training over the course of a lifetime. While you can coach it into some athletes later in life that becomes incredibly more difficult as some kids just lack the abilities. But how do you avoid becoming single dimensional? Training in multiple sports and activities is how!
Training throughout your life in multiple sports and activities has been proven through studies to train athletes to become well rounded athletes. This is due largely to the fact that multiple muscle groups develop in various ways to aid the athlete in the motions. Think about throwing a ball, if you learn to throw a baseball you are going to learn the motion to throw overhanded which will train your shoulders, arm, back, elbows, wrist and hand to use that motion. That will build up flexibility and mobility in those areas, evidence by if someone hasn’t thrown a baseball in years you will often be very sore the first time you do it. The same goes for other sports, sports such as track, soccer, or lacrosse that have a lot of running involved train the athletes legs to take the impact. Now, if someone played Golf their entire life they’re less likely to be able to go run a marathon than say a football player who had running involved, but baseball might work for a golfer since they’re used to a swinging motion. In focusing on one sport your athlete will become less athletic overall and thus result in them being unable to deal with athletes in their chosen sport who are much more athletic overall. Athletes can ALWAYS be taught technical skill, but they can’t be taught athleticism. The single biggest issue faced in athletes who become specialists too early is that a large number will burn out before they’ve finished their careers, and that’s the true issue with specialization.
70% of Athletes quit organized sports by Age 13
Perhaps the biggest issue faced by coaches and parents alike is getting their athletes to stay involved in the sport. Focusing on one sport too early makes this even more difficult. “According to a poll from the National Alliance for Youth Sports, around 70 percent of kids in the United States stop playing organized sports by the age of 13 because “it’s just not fun anymore.”– Washington Post 2016 Article. The hardest part of success at a sport is that it often comes at a cost. There is a lot of time, effort, sweat and tears that goes into winning but that’s not the most fun part about sports. Kids don’t start out wanting to win, in fact most don’t care about that as much even later in their career. In another study done to exam this exact problem, that 70% of athletes quit, researchers at George Washington University studied a group of 200 athletes ages 8 to 18. The group identified 81 things (called “fun determinants”) that can make sports fun. Then they asked the players (ages 8 to 18) to rate how important each thing was to their enjoyment of playing organized sports. Here is a list of the top 5 MOST Fun aspects of sports, and the top 5 LEAST Fun aspects of sports, with their ranking from the study included:
- Trying your best
- When coach treats a player with respect
- Getting Playing time
- Playing well together as a team
- Getting along with your teammates
- Exercising and being active
63. Playing in tournaments
66. Practicing With Specialty Trainers and Coaches
67. Earning Medals or Trophies
73. Traveling to New places to play
81. Getting Pictures Taken
As you can see by these two lists winning and specialization were low on the list of what makes sports fun for athletes. Yet these are quickly becoming priorities for many coaches and parents. You see coaches and parents forcing athletes to quit sports they enjoy, to focus on success and winning in specific sports. Balance is important in an athlete’s life. Winning can be fun but sports are inherently a game, even at the highest level of them. There are a lot of successful athletes who have retired early from pro sports but none more notable than Andrew Luck former quarterback for the Colts. He was forced to retired due to constant injuries that took a toll mentally and physically. Luck was as close to a surefire lock for the Hall of Fame as you can get. Early in his career he was lighting the NFL on fire, yet his career lasted a mere 6 years. The average career of a professional football player is only 3.3 years. These are athletes who get to the pinnacle of their sport, for THREE YEARS. Contrast this with arguably the greatest football player of all time, Tom Brady who has been in the NFL for 21 years. Notably, Tom Brady did not play football until High school and was quite horrible by most standards until later in his high school career. Brady was a multiple sport athlete who actually claims to have been better at baseball than he was football. Patrick Mahomes was drafted to play baseball and is now one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. The common theme here is that those who succeed are not specialists, and those who last aren’t either.
If you want your athlete to succeed at sports, they need to be involved in them. You can’t win a game you never play. In order to keep sports fun, we must focus on WHY kids do sports and not why we WANT them to do sports. Sports are not about winning and losing, it’s about what an athlete gets out of sports that counts the most. You develop lifelong friendships, live a healthier life, create lasting memories and many other awesome things, but ONLY if you make it that far. If you are out of sports by 13 like 70% of athletes, you will never experience these as well as you might have.
I implore anyone reading this post who either has already made their athlete into a specialist or who is thinking about it to allow your athlete to experience things first. Try various sports and activities before you pick one or two to focus on. If you do choose to specialize, make sure that is what the ATHLETE wants to do, never let a coach or another parent convince you that that’s what’s best for your athlete. If a coach is doing it, specifically take caution because it’s likely they are just trying to get more money out of you and less about the best interest of the athlete. Sports are quickly becoming a business and less about the love of the sport itself. That said, my next point is to focus on WHY athletes who don’t specialize early will succeed, so you will learn more about reasons to avoid it early in life in the coming paragraphs.
“Freak of Nature” Athletes aren’t born, They’re Made
Everyone seems to believe that these amazing athletes we watch on our TVs are just born that way. That they come out destined to do great things, but in reality that’s not the case at all. I talked briefly about this concept in my previous post (Centurion Mindset: Becoming Confident by Taking Action) about how Talent is not inherently in us, it is nurtured and developed like anything else in our life. No one is simply born an athlete, while genetics play their part in determining size and weight most of athleticism develops from how you use them. We all know a 6’3″ tall person who is incredibly unathletic, that is because athleticism is a learned ability. Control of one’s body comes from using it in a variety of ways. Balance, speed, stamina for example are all trained. Some are told earlier in life that they have a natural ability and they focus on it, fast kids become fast because they are constantly reminded they’re fast. Strong athletes become stronger because they use their strength more and more. The list goes on. But the major point I am trying to make here is this: Well rounded athletes can always CHOOSE to focus later, but they need to become athletes first.
To become athletic, you really just need to do a lot of activities. Most school gym classes provide an opportunity to develop your athleticism let alone playing different sports but sports are the most effective because there is a power in the choice of it all. Sports aren’t mandatory in most places, which presents us with a perfect chance to develop athletes in many ways. To teach them how to be coachable, to take control of their careers and lives and socialize as well. Sports have a tremendous impact on all who play and that is why it is so important to me to help athletes get the most out of them. If a “gifted” athlete plays multiple sports and dominates them all he or she will continue to develop and will likely find the one they love the most and continue to develop. As I’ve said previously you can’t really teach someone developed already how to become athletic but you can teach it through activity over the course of life. I myself chose to become a specialist my junior year of high school, after I had already realized what my primary sport was and CHOSE to focus on it. The abilities I had developed through other sports helped a ton in my ability to wrestle at a higher level, possibly even more than my sports specific training did. What also helped is that I had quit wrestling at 12 years old but I chose to go back on my own in 8th grade. Two years off gave me time to develop in other ways, which forced me to develop a specific style of wrestling that worked best for me and made it most fun. When I chose to focus on wrestling it was not initially all my own choice though which brings me to my next point.
Make sure that the choice to specialize comes from ONLY the athlete. Don’t attempt to impact it as a coach, as a parent, or as a friend. That choice is specific to the athlete and will change many aspects of their lives. The pressure to succeed when you choose to focus on ONE sport becomes that much greater, which is why most of the best coaches in any sport will not suggest it for younger athletes. The pressure to succeed comes from a lack of options. If you FAIL at your sport, you look much worse off because you poured everything into it, that is a lot of stress at any age. This is why I feel so bad for underperforming pros who get their life torn apart, because all of that weight to carry a team, a city, must put a ton of pressure on them. But also, it’s typically because that’s all they have. Sports are their career; I can’t imagine if I had millions of people judging me for underperforming in my job. Yet this is a position you are put in as a specialist. You become an athlete that people expect the most out of, and if you don’t succeed by others’ standards you might resent your decision. My biggest regret in life is that I focused on my sport and then got hurt right after I made that decision. Almost in a cruel twist of fate within weeks of deciding to not play baseball I was sidelined from all activity for months. If I had played baseball and wrestled also maybe I don’t get hurt and likely have more fun, instead I couldn’t do anything due to a low back injury. The biggest regret was that it wasn’t entirely my choice right away. But now as a coach I have the opportunity to help athletes sort this decision out themselves. My advice to any parent, athlete or coach dealing with this is to make sure the athlete is doing it for the right reasons. Any athlete I have helped come to the conclusion of specialization is over 16 years old and are doing it because wrestling is their passion, and they want to be all they can be with it. That choice is what will propel them to success in one way or another. One way to suggest specialization without fully committing to one sport however is to suggest complimentary sports!
Sports are all Pieces of the Puzzle called life; they help each other!
Just like many things in life, sports have compliments. Light has dark, Oreos and milk, dogs and humans! There’s a ton of sports that complement each other in various ways and these type of multi-sport athletes generally wound up much more successful at their preferred sport than those who play unrelated sports. Now, that’s not to say that there’s an issue with sports that have no DIRECT relations. Most complementary sports are loose compliments any way. It’s not about a 1 to 1 correlation. For example, though you can’t play them at the same time in most states in High School a lot of athletes are able to play Football and Soccer as youths. These sports complement each other through various means, a lot of running, quick twitch changes of direction, even some of the contact. Now, they’re not perfect matches but they help expand the skillset of the athletes. To find sports that complement each other your athlete must really find their skill sets in each sport and their play style.
For example, it is common for NFL Lineman to have wrestled in high school while skill positions players like Wide Receivers were often basketball players. This is because those sports compliment the different positions and play styles differently. Linemen need to understand leverage and moving an opponent who is seeking to get an angle on them while wide receivers need to have jumping explosive strength and ball skills. Had these athletes chosen to just focus on Football and only play football or do skills training all year they might have been great all the same but usually the best athletes are the ones who developed their skills within a competitive context. Drills are performed in low risk situations whereas sports have their own forms of competition.
As a club coach it means that I coach kids who are often some of the best athletes around their ages because they are doing extracurricular practices outside of their school teams. I am happy that so many of my athletes are exceptional athletes in all their sports because it means that they will have the ability to do so many things. Some coaches try to force specialization on athletes at a young age, many of them because it’s what they did and it “worked for me” but many of them didn’t even complete their careers due to injury or burnout. I vastly prefer that my athletes play sports that they love that happen to build their athletic ability and then come back to wrestling when they’re ready. My goal as a coach is to NEVER be someone’s LAST coach in the sport. So, my advice to any parent who already knows the sports their athletes succeed in, encourage them to possibly try sports that might compliment them rather than specialize. Let me use an example from my own coaching to give a little better of an idea.
To pick complimentary sports look at what skills help the athlete to succeed in all of them, for example hand eye coordination, footwork, body control, agility, explosive strength etc. For me as a wrestling coach I generally want my athletes to have solid understandings of how to move their bodies, sports that help this are any sport that teaches them to move quickly at speed, such as football, soccer, gymnastics etc. Any sport where they use their body the ENTIRE time. Another key is for them to have explosive strength and be able to use their hands to move someone around, again football is a great compliment as well as BJJ and other combat sports, but possible indirect compliments are even swimming because of the strength it builds in the arms and legs. I also love wrestlers who know how to pay attention to details, that goes for most sports but particularly those that require more technical ability like soccer, lacrosse and baseball.
As you can see just for my sport of wrestling there are so many sports that can help develop ideal wrestlers without having to focus on wrestling the entire year. I love talking to coaches from other sports like Lacrosse and baseball because they love wrestlers, they love the way they compete and are often willing to do anything it takes to do their best. The best indictment a coach can get is when other coaches love coaching your athletes too! That means you’re developing well rounded athletes and exceptional human beings.
If you want your athlete to succeed in life and their preferred sports get them to seek to do their best in each and every sport and find the sports that will build their athletic ability. This makes their career as an athlete more fun and will show them how to develop overall athleticism for the long term. The wonderful part of sports is what we learn along the way, the lessons and skills, rather than the accolades. Don’t chase titles chase development especially if they are pre-teen. There’s no reason to specialize at 8 years old, your athlete may not even be in that sport at 13.
Which brings me to my last and final point. When is it time to start specializing in a certain sport?
Specialize when the time is right!
Specialization in sports is a very specific decision for each individual athlete. It is hard to tell at what age it will benefit an athlete the most to focus on a single sport to attempt to achieve mastery. Some adapt their athletic ability earlier than others, so perhaps a focus will help them succeed early and often. But there is a general consensus among those who study sports for a living that 13 years old is about the appropriate age to begin focusing on a single sport. 13 is that magical age where athletes really decide if athletics are for them. As I mentioned before 70% of athletes will quit organized sport BEFORE age 13. That makes getting to age 13 so important, if an athlete can make it there and love one (or more) of the sports they participate in, it may be a time to focus on one or two! Specialization at this age is ideal because generally an athlete has begun to physically mature and the have likely built up athletic prowess through the sports they have participated in!
The main reason that 13 years old is a great year to begin specialization as well is because is the year most athletes will enter 8th grade. It gives an athlete time to focus development prior to getting to high school. High school is when you will really no longer compete against athletes limited to your own age, you may be a 14 year old competing against 18 year old athletes. Focusing in on a sport that you are passionate in but also that you have success in can allow you to truly jump levels. It is also best to begin long term planning for your sport at around this age, for some sports such as gymnastics this is when you will begin your physical peak generally. The major key to success in specialization though is passion from the ATHLETE.
Passion is key to success in anything in life. If you love something it is not hard to put a lot of effort into it and attempt to achieve many difficult tasks within it. However, if you focus efforts on something you’re not truly passionate about it will often make success that much harder. For a lot of athletes the reason specialization doesn’t work as well as it could is usually because the parents directed it. Parents force athletes out of other sports in order to have success in one particular sport. If an athlete makes the decision, they will have complete ownership of the process and results. If an athlete chooses to specialize themselves and they are doing it out of a passion for the sport it will drive them to work harder and push them through adversity within the sport.
I rarely encourage specialization but when I do it is typically in athletes who are incredibly passionate. Passion in sport is something very special for each and every athlete. My dream with any athlete I have is that they will find a love for the sport earlier than I did. I loved wresting, but when I went to Penn State I found a new love for the sport. One that I now seek to instill into my own athletes. However, this doesn’t mean I am forcing them to specialize, the opposite really. I love that some of my most passionate athletes play other sports, and love them as well. The main reason I love this? They love athletics, period. They succeed in their sports because they have a passion for play. That passion for play is what draws any athlete to sports, it’s what keeps them going. Professional athletes often talk about how they love just playing the game. They get paid tons of money to play the exact same sport children play.
If you want specialization to succeed, you must first do all you can to instill a love of the game in your athlete. Show them how to love the process, to love the sport and NOT the results and perhaps they will develop a life long passion for it. Give them the space to decide for themselves what sport they will focus on and be happy regardless of the result. Athletes can have an amazing career without being the Greatest of All Time. Their sports career is determined by how much they can look back on it and say they loved it. Look back on a career with no regrets!
Conclusion and Extra Resources:
If you have read this far let me just say that I am so incredibly grateful to you! This took a lot of effort and time and research. I hit a wall writing this probably a dozen times because I was scared about getting it right. An athletes career is so important to them, their family and their community. I wanted this blog to become a wonderful resource to anyone who may need it. Whether that is considering specialization early on in an athletes career, or trying to play catch up late in the game. This blog is just part of my journey as a coach to provide the best advice I can, and to be a resource to anyone who coaches, or is raising an athlete!
Thank you so much again for reading this blog, and if you enjoyed it or found value in it please consider sharing it with others who may also find value in it and learn from it! I want to help anyone and everyone have fun and success in their athletic careers!
If you enjoyed my work and want to read more like this blog, I have a few posts that relate to this topic. But there are also some great resources I used to write this blog.
Resources on Specialization:
10 Factors for Athletic Development
Benefits of Playing Multiple Sports
Previous Blogs Relating to Sports Development:
How do you become Elite at Wrestling?