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Doug Robinson: Why sports specialization for young athletes has its pitfalls


Attention, high school athletes:

If you are specializing in a sport, you get a yellow card or a yellow flag, whatever. I know, you’ve been harangued about the dangers of specialization almost as much as the pitfalls of smartphones. But if you specialize, the vast majority of you will regret it.

These are two sentences that are going to come out of your mouth someday: “I wish I had done other sports.” “I wish I had learned to play the piano.” (Later, you will say, “I wish I had bought that stock 20 years ago,” and “That was in style when I was a kid,” but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

As everyone knows, the era of specialization is upon us. This fall, thousands of young athletes will compete in prep soccer and football after training for those sports pretty much year-round to the exclusion of a lot of other things (other sports, piano, family time).

Everyone from Urban Meyer to Kyle Whittingham and Pete Carroll has urged athletes to participate in multiple sports. Much has been written on the pitfalls of specialization — I have written extensively on the subject (here and here).

And yet most athletes and many coaches — and, for that matter, people in many professional fields outside of sports — perceive that specialization early in life is the path to success. They’re wrong.

The irony is that specialization doesn’t make kids better and more successful in that specialty in the long run. That is the conclusion of “Range,” a book by David Epstein that was released this year. According to Epstein, studies suggest that long-term success in any field is best achieved by having a well-rounded experience, whether it is multiple sports for athletes or, beyond athletics, engaging in a broad-based sampling of art, music, history, science, etc.

He compares the development of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Woods began playing golf at the age of 2 and dedicated his entire childhood (and life) to the game, coached and pushed by a domineering father. He enjoyed phenomenal early success but flamed out in what should have been his peak years for various reasons — injuries, addictions, unhappiness, etc.

Then there was Federer, who participated in a variety of sports as a boy — skiing, wrestling, swimming, skateboarding, basketball, handball, tennis, table tennis, soccer and badminton. His parents had no expectations for his sports and when he finally did begin to lean more toward tennis they urged him not to take it too seriously.

His mother was a tennis coach but decided it was better for their relationship if she didn’t coach him. When Federer’s coach decided to move him to a group of older players, Federer refused; he wanted to remain with his friends. As Epstein notes, “By the time he finally gave up other sports — to focus on tennis — other kids had long since been working with strength coaches, sports psychologists and nutritionists. “

And yet Federer became a champion. He is the all-time men’s leader in Grand Slam wins. He has continued to win championships deep into his 30s.

Epstein’s thematic statement went this way: “Eventual elites typically devote less time early on to deliberate practice in the activity in which they will eventually become experts. Instead, they undergo what researchers call a ‘sampling period.’ They play a variety of sports, usually in an unstructured or lightly structured environment; they gain a range of physical proficiencies from which they can draw; they learn about their own abilities and proclivities; and only later do they focus in and ramp up technical practice in one area.’’

The specialists get a big head start, but the “samplers” catch up and even surpass them. Epstein notes that German scientists discovered that members of their World Cup championship team were late specializers who didn’t play more organized soccer than amateur-league players until age 22 or later. Instead, they spent their youth playing other sports and nonstructured soccer. Another study tracked 11-year-old soccer players for two years. Those who participated in other sports and unstructured soccer improved more by age 13.

There are endless examples. Ashton Eaton, the Olympic decathlon champion and world record holder, never competed in six of the 10 decathlon events until he went to college. Basketball star Steve Nash didn’t play basketball until he was 13. He believes soccer helped him excel in basketball.

Right now you’re saying, that might be true in another sport, but not in my sport. Which is exactly what Epstein says is the reaction of most athletes — especially soccer (they are the “loudest,” he writes).

The “sampling period” also applies to the nonsports arenas — math, science, music, etc. According to Epstein, scientists inducted into the highest national academies are much more likely to have avocations outside of their vocation. Nobel laureates and nationally renowned scientists are much more likely to be musicians, sculptors, painters, printmakers, woodworkers, mechanics, poets or writers. They “traveled on an eight-lane highway rather than down a single-lane one-way street. They had range,” wrote Christopher Connolly, who co-founded a consulting business to help high-achieving athletes and other professionals. “(They) were excellent at taking knowledge from one pursuit and applying it creatively to another.”

Let’s let a renowned coach have the final word — former USC coach Pete Carroll (now head coach of the Seattle Seahawks). He once said, “The first questions I’ll ask about a kid are, ‘What other sports does he play? What does he do? What are his positions? Is he a big hitter in baseball? Is he a pitcher? Does he play hoops?’ All of those things are important to me. I hate that kids don’t play three sports in high school. I think that they should play year-round and get every bit of it that they can through that experience. I really, really don’t favor kids having to specialize in one sport.”