A few days ago, there was a brief item about Jennifer Capriati getting a police citation for taking a ring from a shopping mall in Tampa. Part of the story was speculation she has burned out at 17.

Think about that for a second: burned out at 17.We have seen this phenomenon before, in swimmers and gymnasts, kids who flash before our eye like comets in the night sky, only to soon burn out. We have seen it with tennis players. Superstar Bjorn Borg walked away at 25.

This is not meant to overemphasize Capriati's ring episode, which may have been the mere oversight her agent said it was, but more and more it seems you pay a price for being a sports prodigy.

It's the sense that prodigies grow up inside a cocoon, sheltered from many of the normal things other kids go through, set apart at an early age by talent and unusual circumstances.

Can any teenager be expected to play pro sports in the middle of the white-hot spotlight and not pay a psychological price? Can any teenager grow up obsessed with a sport, shaped by it, defined by it, and not be changed by the experience?

And it doesn't stop with the Capriatis of the world. More and more we are seeing that in order to be good - truly good at a particular sport - you have to make a total commitment. Youth league hockey players play in leagues all summer. Kids play soccer year 'round. High school basketball players virtually go on tour with summer AAU teams.

The days of the kid who plays several sports are virtually extinct.

Remember when it was different? Go back a generation and the role model was the three-sport star, the fictional Chip Hilton, the guy who went from sport to sport with the seasons, moving along as if on a conveyer belt. The implication was that the only time you concentrated on a sport was in its season.

Now that seems just another remnant from a gone-forever era. Virtually all sports are extremely specialized. We are seeing that to be good, you have to start concentrating on one to the exclusion of all else. There are exceptions, but they are increasingly few and far between - for the simple reason that virtually all sports are year-round now, at least unofficially.

So just what is the message here? It's simple. If you want to be good, you start young and concentrate. To be really good, the kind of good that gets a scholarship, you must have rare talent or almost an obsession about a sport.

There's still another level, the Capriatis of the world, the true prodigies.

Does anyone really know what their best sport is at age 12, much less eight? Should kids be locked into one thing, all their athletic hopes being decided before they even reach high school? Is athletic success worth the price you might have to pay?

It makes you wonder.

How many kids chose the wrong sport, or would have been better served by playing more than one?

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Time was when kids were allowed to dabble in different sports as if at a salad bar: baseball over here, hockey over there, pickup basketball on the side. They were allowed to come to sports at their own pace, trying one, discarding it, trying another.

That's difficult now. It's all too specialized, too competitive. Play all the time or fall behind. Play year 'round or sit in the stands and watch those who do.

It's the price of being good. It seems like a steep price.

Maybe the worst part is some are put on the treadmill with little control over whether they even want the chance to be really good.

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