HARTFORD, Conn. - Steve Boyle remembers exactly when he realized that young athletes faced too much pressure to specialize in a single sport.
Boyle's daughter had tried out for a local travel soccer team, and the coach was on the phone, explaining that the 9-year-old was his top prospect and would fit perfectly into his schematic system. Then, as Boyle recalls it, he asked how the travel team's schedule would affect his daughter's desire to play lacrosse in the spring. The coach went silent.
"It went from 'No. 1 prospect' to 'no longer interested' simply because of a 9-year-old's interest in another sport," Boyle remembered recently, more than 10 years later. "And I thought, 'I cannot believe how much the world has changed.' "
Soon after that phone call, Boyle started 2-4-1 Sports, an organization that hosts multi-sport camps and clinics and advocates for athletes to sample different sports, instead of sticking to one. (The organization's name comes from the credo that, "Life's 2 short 4 just 1 sport.") Last year, he quit his job in the West Hartford school system - where he had coached track and field, soccer, basketball and lacrosse and also served as a guidance counselor - to focus full-time on the cause.
Coaches and administrators across Connecticut have witnessed up close a national trend over the past 10 or 15 years in which kids specialize in a single sport in elementary or middle school, playing year-round for club and travel teams in pursuit of elusive college scholarships, despite the risk of injury, burnout and stalled development.
And although specialization can make sense for self-motivated elite athletes with credible dreams of professional or Olympic careers, experts say the trend has spread too far.
"I think it's sort of in the water in a lot of places," said Steve Smith, a sports psychologist who has studied specialization. "It just feels like there's this pressure culturally for kids to be the best at everything and to really bolt in and know what they want to do really early. We've lost the multi-sport athlete."
Early specialization can carry significant costs, experts say, including increased risk for burnout and overuse injuries. Baseball pitchers who throw year-round, for example, can be more prone to serious elbow issues, while athletes across sports who specialize have been found to have higher rates of inactivity as adults.
And although early specialization tends to help athletes succeed in the short-term, it might actually hinder their long-run performance. Research suggests athletes benefit physically, cognitively and psychologically from playing multiple sports, while also remaining healthier than their counterparts who specialize. The website Tracking Football reports 29 of the 32 first-round picks in the 2018 NFL draft were multi-sport athletes in high school, along with 30 of the 32 first-round picks in the 2017 NFL draft.
Smith said athletes can benefit, in terms of both health and performance, from exercising different muscles throughout their development, as opposed to over-exerting the same ones.
"When you play a lot of different sports, there's more compensatory muscle development, bone growth and that kind of thing," Smith said. "If you have a kid who's playing baseball during baseball season but is also running track or playing basketball, just think about all the muscle development that goes along with that."
Even college coaches, who would have reason to prefer more polished high-school prospects, often voice a preference for multi-sport athletes. UConn football coach Randy Edsall said recently that he likes to watch recruits play other sports as part of his evaluation process so he can see their full range of skills.
"I love the multi-sport athletes," Edsall said. "I would rather have guys that are multi-sport because then they haven't maxed out. These guys that are playing one sport and doing it year in and year out, over and over and over again, sometimes they don't have the upside because they're tapped out."
Glenn Lungarini knows plenty about the pros and cons of early specialization. As a former athlete, coach, athletic director and principal, he witnessed kids who focused on one sport, as well as those who played many. Now, as executive director of the Connecticut Association of Schools, Lungarini encourages young athletes to diversify, even if (in fact, especially if) they hope to play in college.
"Even that small percentage of kids that has the ability to go on to college, that doesn't necessarily mean that the position in the given sport that you played in high school is where you're going to play in college," Lungarini said. "So the more athleticism you have, the more experiences you have in different scenarios, the more versatile you become as an athlete."
Lungarini remembers one recent student, Pomperaug High School's Jason Hirschauer, who came to him uncertain whether to join the football team as a senior or concentrate on golf, which he had played since childhood but begun to sour on. After years of golfing, Hirschauer had begun to question how much he actually enjoyed the game.
"I didn't really know if I wanted to make golf my job (in college)," Hirschauer recalled recently. "I didn't know if I wanted to commit to do that, because I didn't know if I loved it."
With Lungarini's support, Hirschauer decided to try football. He starred as a kicker and punter and was soon recruited to kick at Sacred Heart, where he remains on the football roster with hopes of earning a scholarship soon.
Now, Hirschauer has some simple advice for teenage athletes seeking to continue their careers past high school.
"Make as many varsity teams as you can," he said. "If I put all my eggs in my golf basket and realized that wasn't what I really wanted, you're kind of screwed because you don't have any other options."
Like many kids, Manchester's Aidan Puffer dabbled in numerous sports when he was young. He learned gymnastics and archery, took taekwondo lessons and played soccer and baseball. Then, at age 10, he ran his first 5K race. After an impressive finish, he signed up for another. Then another. Then he joined a club team. Soon, he was running year-round, setting world records for his age group while letting all other sports fall away.
When Puffer arrived at Manchester High this past fall, there was little question what his sports schedule would look like: He would run cross country in the fall, indoor track in the winter and outdoor track in the spring.
"(I wanted) to see how could I compete with putting all my effort into one sport," Puffer said recently. "It's just a level of competitiveness. If you're not as competitive and are doing other sports and it's fun, then why not do (that). But if you're doing it to be competitive and you want to be competitive at one sport, just doing that one sport, you get to put all your effort into it."
Aidan's father Kyle Puffer says (and many experts agree) that under the right circumstances, with the right kid, early specialization can make sense.
"It depends on who's driving it," Kyle Puffer said. "I wouldn't force a kid to (play) one sport, but I also wouldn't stand in the way. If your kid is very focused and passionate and really loves what they're doing, you want to support them."
Kyle Puffer, whose two other children play multiple sports, said he and his wife Martha makes sure not to push Aidan too hard or apply too much pressure to land a college scholarship. Aidan guards against overuse injuries through strength training and saves his top exertion for the biggest races. Kyle Puffer knows what can happen to kids with overbearing parents and over-demanding coaches. He says he and Martha have tried to give Aidan a different experience, even as the young runner has focused on a single sport.
"Even when Aidan was really little, people would bring up, 'scholarships, scholarships,'" Kyle Puffer said. "And we were just trying not to say anything about that because we want to make sure he's doing it because he enjoys it and not because of expectations for scholarships and things like that."
Aidan Puffer says his goal is to compete for national titles throughout his high-school career. He says he enjoys running as much as ever and doesn't feel pressure from his parents or coaches to do anything he doesn't want to.
"It's been my decision," he said.
Despite the risks, early specialization remains popular among parents and kids dreaming of college scholarships. Neeru Jayanthi, an expert in youth sports health at Emory University, said about a third of young athletes fall into the "high specialization" category, another third are "moderately specializing" and the final third are truly diversifying what sports they play.
As for the proper course, Jayanthi said that varies by sport and by kid. For example, Jayanthi said, athletes in a sport such as gymnastics, in which peak performance arrives at a relatively young age, might have more reason to specialize early than, say, football players, for whom pure athleticism is often most important. Meanwhile, kids with a genuine chance at playing a professional sport have greater cause to specialize than those whose athletic careers won't likely reach past high school.
Though Jayanthi has studied the drawbacks of early specialization, he tries to remain realistic about the trend. He recommends that most young athletes, particularly in team sports, diversify until age 12 or 14. Beyond then, he said, specializing has become almost inevitable, at least for elite athletes.
"If you get to high school, you can do whatever you want, to me," Jayanthi said. "The days of three-sport athletes are probably gone."
Ultimately, Jayanthi said, the trend toward early specialization won't reverse itself until national governing bodies and coaches create development models that offer another path toward elite-level success.
"(Parents) know it's not the best thing for their child, but how are you going to change that?" Jayanthi said. "If you want to play college tennis, you have to be at these tennis academies 15 hours a week, and you can't take three months off or you're going to fall behind. So even if (parents) know it, they don't know how to change it."
Boyle said fighting against the specialization trend can feel like "running into the wind." As long as parents dream of their kids landing (highly limited) college scholarships, coaches seek customers for their travel teams and sports facilities and national organizations decline to build policy around encouraging multi-sport participation, specialization figures to continue.
Still, Boyle continues to host camps, speak at conferences and share a simple message with any parent and young athlete who will listen: When it comes to youth sports, there's no need to pick one.
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