Monday, November 18, 2013

Specializing in One Sport, Yay or Nay?

This is a question many people have; should I specialize on one sport or is it okay to “still” be a multi-sport athlete?  The first question I would ask; what’s your motivation behind why you’re playing in the first place.  If the answer is to get a scholarship, you’re already headed down a dangerous road.  The only motivation anyone should have for playing is for the love of the game, enjoy the challenges the game brings, the life lessons they learn, and wanting to be better today than yesterday.  The intention behind why you play is the ultimate driving force creating the results you’ll have.

But let’s go back the question at hand.  Should you specialize or play multiple sports?  Having coached in college for 20 years and being a Division One Head Softball Coach I saw many, many talented players through the years.  Without a doubt, there were some amazing softball players who had only ever played softball, but hands down the best players I had or ever saw were the ones who were multi-sport athletes.  It’s mainly due to the physiological and psychological benefits.  Each sport has its own characteristics and skill sets required to be successful, but they all require balance, coordination, and body awareness.  Learning the nuances of each sport, while incorporating these physical factors trains the body to move in many different ways and you avoid the dangers of specificity training.

When you specialize in only one sport the body learns only those movements required and the muscle memory is one dimensional, but to play multiple sports your body is better equipped to adapt to various physical stresses.  You also improve your physical prowess, especially coordination. Serve, receive in tennis and volleyball or a penalty shot for a goalie in soccer is a similar pre-set stance to being a second baseman or short stop in baseball or softball.  They all require quick explosive movement that could be front, back, up, down, or side to side.  Imagine how much better you would be as a fielder after having played these other sports.  The skill set training is different, but the impact on the crossover would be tremendous.  You also gain the psychological impact of learning different skills, being challenged to cope with various successes and failures, adapting to coaching techniques, and learning game strategies which increases your mental aptitude for decision making.

Another area that is always a concern when someone plays a sport is preventing overuse injuries.  When you play only one sport you increase your chances for these types of injuries because the body is always doing the same motions, in the same way.  Orthopedic doctors are seeing an increase in the intensity of overuse injuries in athletes at much younger ages.  Many of it being contributed to the age the athletes are starting, the amount they are playing, and the specialization of only one sport causing too much repetition of similar movements.  

Ok, but what about the scholarship?  Don’t I have to specialize to get a scholarship?  The answer is absolutely not.  As a matter of fact, being a multi or dual sport athlete will give you credibility and add value to college coaches.  When you are good enough to be considered for a scholarship the coaches know who you are.  Coaches are looking for the future potential in an athlete and specializing limits that potential. It’s just like when you play only one position, it limits your effectiveness and future possibilities.  Yet a multi-sport player brings all sorts of possible options because of the various skill sets you have to have.  I could spot the best athletes in warm ups.  I knew who I would follow and want to track very quickly, because I saw their athleticism.  I know I can teach an athlete a new skill easier than I can change a one dimensional player’s bad habit.  I also knew to be a multi-sport athlete they would need discipline in time management, setting priorities, and have a strong work ethic.   

Lebron James was an excellent football player in high school, but his basketball skills were not missed.  As a matter of fact, last year during the basketball strike there was much discussion about whether Lebron would play wide receiver for some NFL team.  Russel Westbrook, the Seattle Seahawks QB, played professional baseball during the summer while he was in college.  Tom Brady was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays before going to Michigan to play football.  There are many famous professional players who were not only multi-sport athletes, but so good at all their sports they created options for themselves and their futures.  I think it is safe to say, being a multi-sport athlete did not hurt the exposure or the effectiveness of these players.  

One last fact to consider is you have a limited window to be a multi-sport athlete.  High school should be about options, exploration, and growth.  You only have a short time to experience playing multi-sports for your high school, being a part of different teams, different coaches, and different rivalries.   If you are fortunate to play in college (and there are so many options to make that happen) you will specialize in one sport, so why rush the process.  So I return to my original question.  What is the motivation behind playing only one sport?  If it is so you’ll be good enough to play in college and get a scholarship, re-visit your thought process and realize you will be much more likely to reach that goal if you are a well rounded athlete.  Coaches want healthy, well rounded people who are great athletes, not a one dimensional, specialized product.

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