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Specialization vs. Multiple Sports: Does it Really Help Your Kid Get Into College?

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It may seem far away, but it’s closer than you think.

For many families, youth sports lead to the ultimate goal of playing collegiate athletics, with the possibility of a scholarship or a better opportunity at a more elite school. While the college admissions process may be years away, the pressure to specialize starts early. The idea being that focusing on one sport will yield more specific talent and increase an athlete’s chances of playing collegiate athletics. While specialization undeniably has success stories, there are also great risks involved.

The issue of specialization versus multi-sport play is a hotly-debated topic–and rightfully so. The experiences associated with specialization or multi-sport play vary from family to family and athlete to athlete. There is no concrete right or wrong.

The pros and cons of specialization are well-documented and fluctuate from person to person. But as with any debated topic, it’s important as parents to at the very least, hear both sides.

The Pro’s of Specialization

Sport-specific weight programs: Specialization enables athletes to focus on workouts specific to their sport—something that a multi-sport schedule typically prohibits.

Extensive Instruction: Similarly, athletes have the ability to receive hyper-focused instruction on one sport all year round, even choosing to attend summer camps where they can hone their skills and be surrounded by equally talented and competitive athletes.

Increased Exposure: Arguably the most crucial benefit to specialization is found in the college admission process. Specialization may free up your athletes calendar and allow he or she to participate in off-season showcases and camps, increasing their exposure to coaches and schools.

The Con’s of Specialization

The cons of specialization can be just as harsh as the pros are rewarding.

Risk of injury: Specialized athletes use the same muscle groups for an extended amount of time, increasing their risk of injury.

Burn out: Focusing on one sport from an early age can become mentally exhausting for many young athletes and accounts for a higher rate of burn out.

Loss of experience: The vast majority of collegiate athletes only play one sport. Why rush them to this path? The experiences and lessons gained from multi-sport play can only help your child become a more well-rounded athlete.

Sports Specialization by the Numbers

In all major professional sports, the number of athletes who played multiple sports up until or through college is quite large. Take for example, the 2016 NFL draft. When the first round of the draft ended, 26 of 31 players selected had played multiple sports in high school.

What does this mean? While these NFL players are some of the most physically gifted athletes in the world, it’s tough to deny correlation. Most notably is the idea of cross-over skills, like hand-eye coordination and footwork, which can actually improve with varied repetition across different sports.

And then there’s Stephen Curry. NBA champion and the first unanimous MVP in NBA history, Curry is one of the elite professional athletes who chose the path of multi-sport play up until college. He’s simply a shining example of the benefits of multi-sport play in an athlete’s development.

At the end of the day, the experiences surrounding specialization are different for every person. There is no specific data that suggest specialization will drastically increase your child’s chance to play a collegiate sport. Yet, there’s not data that suggests the opposite. It’s a decision that hinges primarily on the beliefs and desires of you and your young athlete.

There are two sides to this story and the ultimate goal for most is to play a collegiate sport. It’s on us as parents to understand and find the healthy route to attaining that goal.

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Dr. Richard Ginsburg
Dr. Richard D. Ginsburg is a clinical psychologist and sport psychology consultant. He is co-director of the Massachusetts General Hospital PACES Institute of Sport Psychology and is an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Ginsburg also serves as staff psychologist in the Newton Wellesley Hospital Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Department and is the director of Behavioral Health for the Boston Red Sox. Dr. Ginsburg offers a broad range of clinical services to children, adolescents and adults and conducts youth and professional sport research. He is author of the book, Whose Game Is It, Anyway, A guide to helping your child get the most from sports, organized by age and stage and has served as a sport psychology consultant for a variety of professional and college-level sports teams, including lacrosse, soccer, water polo and ice hockey at Harvard University. He is a member of the US Lacrosse Safety and Science Committee and provides talks and consultations nationally to youth, high school, and collegiate athletic programs. Dr. Ginsburg played lacrosse and soccer at Kenyon College, where he won all-conference and all-Midwest honors. He is also a former independent school teacher and coach. He lives with his wife, Teri, and their two children in Newton, Massachusetts.