The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Sports May 5, 2007

Specialized Future

A recent trend among parents is to solely enroll their children in one sport during an entire year. This process is called sport specialization, and comes as an alternative to the common American idea of the all-around three-sport athlete.

The widespread misunderstanding of sport specialization, as presented by the American Academy of Pediatrics, is that, “Youngsters should be discouraged from specializing in a single sport before adolescence to avoid physical and psychological damage. The risks range from ‘overuse’ injuries such as stress fractures to delayed menstruation, eating disorders, emotional stress and burnout.”

Since I was ten years old I had soccer practice between four or five times a week with two games on a Saturday or a tournament over the course of a long weekend. Practices consisted of two hours training, akin to the type of system that any young professional would come across in a European, Asian, African or South American country involving running, ball work, tactical understanding and playing. Essentially, I was an athlete who chose to become specialized.

It is part of a simple formula that is used overseas and in other countries: top facilities alongside top coaching produce top professionals, or “specialized,” athletes. These professionals show their thanks and repay their trainers by bringing a team winning results in years to come.

When groups like the AAP come out with nonsense saying that kids should not be specialized in sports, I laugh and shake my head. The reason that “physical and psychological damage” occur does not come from sport specialization but from the parents and the society which place them in such a circumstance.

One common trend in American society is that people desire to see favorable results in terms of their investments as soon as their money and time become involved. Whether it is a grade in school or a win on a playing field, failure is not accepted as a feasible outcome by parents in terms of their children.

This ideology places pressure on the coach of a team to produce a squad capable of winning. Eventually, this pressure causes the hired coach unbelievable amounts of stress. More often than not, this forces him or her to take practical decision making, which first got him or her the job as the trainer, and change it to establish a mindset where victory, no longer development (which is the whole key to specializing an athlete), dominates.

This leads to a coach who yells at his players, causing them “psychological damage,” and tries to overdevelop their bodies prematurely by pushing them beyond their limitations, causing them “physical damage.” Although that team might do great during the early years of “elite” competition, it eventually falters when athletes on other teams are technically able to handle the unwavering tactics of a coach who never developed his or her players, focusing instead on producing results at an age when the focus of a coach should be on skill progression rather than winning.

A parent should want to foster the passion that his or her child shows for a sport in hopes of increasing the child’s athletic potential, thus pushing children to play at the highest possible level. The goal with a young child should not be to place medals and trophies on a mantle to show off to friends and family, a typical short-sighted mindset that many parents have.

If the AAP is curious as to why children who specialize in a specific sport face “eating disorders, emotional stress and burnout,” they must stop being short-sighted. Groups like the AAP need to stop asserting that sport specialization is detrimental to the health of younger athletes and start mentioning alternative means to best develop them, aiding athletic progress instead of stalling it.

Overseas, a common athletic trend is for parents to send their children to academies when recruited, where they receive an education in their sport alongside a typical scholastic education. The focus is on the sport education, but the proper training comes from coaches and individuals who know how best to develop the individual player for a career rather than for a single season. This form of specialization goes against the “typical” American system of high school sports. Instead of perfecting the all-around athlete while only focusing on winning, young professionals are being perfected to succeed in a single sport.

What has become increasingly clear over the last few years at the professional level is that there has been an influx of foreign athletes into the American leagues. The American athlete is no longer the poster boy for sport, but rather the bench player who hopes to get his or her opportunity in due time. Baseball’s pitching aces and home run heroes are of Japanese and Latin American descent; football’s special teams are run by Aussie Rules Football players who are better able to punt and kick; basketball’s all-stars hail from Europe, Canada and Asia; and Major League Soccer, created to develop the American player to compete in the heavily dominated world game, has been Beckhamized as foreigners now take away American roster spots.

The American athlete, unlike ever before, is at a disadvantage to other athletes across the world. To produce top American professionals, the idea of sport development has to change. The time of the three-sport athlete is in its twilight and the specialized athlete now stands alone with the sun on his or her shoulders.


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