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Should Young Athletes Specialize in Just One Sport?

A high school coach and athletic trainer weigh in


Updated October 11, 2012
A question from a reader: My son is only nine and a half, and he plays basketball/football/and baseball very well. Can someone tell me why do so many people tell us he needs to stop, let's say, football, if he ever hopes for success in basketball/baseball, on the college level?

It's a good question. With the expansion of the AAU and other summer programs, these days it is possible to play basketball year-round. And all those extra repetitions in practice and in games can obviously help young players improve their games significantly. On the other hand, the list of athletes that have excelled at basketball and some other sport is long and distinguished; many believe that specialization can lead to repetitive-strain injuries and general burnout.

I asked a high school coach and an athletic trainer for their thoughts on specialization.

The Coach's Perspective

by Coach Nick Hauselman

Funny that you ask this, since I'm dealing with it right now.

High school is much different than younger grades. Cross-sport development is great for 8th grade and younger, to avoid burnout and to develop their muscle development and balance overall. However, at the high school level, particularly with basketball, it becomes more difficult from a schedule standpoint. Since we are a winter sport, coaches have to wait for fall sport participants to finish, including playoffs. I have potentially two starters who will show up having missed over four months of training. As a result, their skills will be rusty and we will be hard-pressed to develop chemistry in a short time period. While the benefits of football exist, I feel this absence outweighs the positive and makes it more difficult to establish our team.

I would like to see stats on how many D1 basketball players played high school football. I would suspect that number is diminishing and frankly, I would prefer to have my players playing basketball during the crucial fall training period.

My perspective is as a coach in the midst of building a national program, intent on producing college basketball players on a regular basis. Other programs might not have this perspective and would encourage their athletes to play multiple sports. Of course, I have no problem with my players playing spring sports, as they generally start after our season is done in February.

With competition so strong in high school basketball now, more and more players need as much time as possible focused on continually developing their skills.

Coach Nick Hauselman is Head Coach of Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, CA and creator and host of BBALLBREAKDOWN.com.

The Trainer's Perspective

by Jeff Stotts

Specialization in sports can improve an individual's performance in a particular sport but can also increase problems, both physically and mentally.

Generally when a young athlete elects to specialize in a sport it means they are making a large time commitment to perfecting the sport. The week is filled with private lessons, team practices, and other specialized workouts followed by a weekend filled with games and performances.

Unfortunately this grinding schedule can do serious damage to a still-developing body. Overuse injuries to muscles, bones, and ligaments are more likely to occur with sports specialization as the individual constantly performs the same task. The issue is compounded when you consider that the muscles and joints of the effected individual are still growing and not prepared to handle high intensity, repetitive forces. Injuries like stress fractures, tendinitis, and epiphysitis are just a few of the ailments that can occur with extended loading.

On the flip side, individuals who play multiple sports are able to develop multiple muscle groups as well as fine tune their motor skills. Rest can be given to certain areas of the body with a shift in sports allowing these areas to recuperate and heal.

Specialization can also lead to mental fatigue, as the athlete is more likely to suffer from burnout. It is also difficult for a young individual to avoid mental fatigue and burnout if the motivation to perform in one specific sport is not internal. Having a parent or coach as the driving force behind specialization can take away the fun of the sport and make it seem as more of a chore or requirement.

Jeff Stotts is a Certified Athletic Trainer, MAT, PES and the Injury Analyst for Rotowire.com. You can follow him on twitter @RotoWireATC.

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