I hope all college coaches reading this agree with this statement: The specialization of young athletes is an epidemic we must take part in changing.
To do this, let’s look at the facts and trends. Over the past 15 years there has been a strong movement by people/coaches to make a living from their sport. These are generally well meaning people who enjoy coaching young people, but in an effort to make a living doing what they do, try to get their pool of kids to pay for their coaching services not only in their primary season, but in as many off-seasons as possible. Some of these coaches give priority attention and playing time to their best customers and thus creating an environment where others feel they need to do the same to keep up. In addition, often times these coaches tell their players and parents that not only is playing their sport for two, three, sometimes four seasons is the only way to develop to play in college, but that this is what college coaches want!
So we are left with young athletes and their parents not knowing any better any who think the only way to develop, and in fact keep up, is to narrow their focus on what they spend their time doing. But this is completely contrary to the way we were all raised. It is also completely contrary to raising a healthy, physically and emotionally balanced child. Worse yet, it also seems to put a focus on the future and making that sport seem like an “investment”. It is not an investment. It is a fun, competitive way for children to grow as people. If an 8 year old is hitting baseballs all winter so his parents get rewarded with his recruiting or a scholarship down the road, then we have completely lost our minds. Plenty of other things for a kid to do in the winter. Wrestle, play basketball, ski, walk in the woods with his dog, you name it. If he loves baseball he can find the time to hit or play a day or two a week during the winter and still be involved in other things.
I am not telling anyone how to live, trust me. I am still figuring out live like everyone else. But I do know when I hear a nine year old only play soccer all year round, give up family time, friend time, to devote to this one sport, this one endeavor, I feel like I’m living on Mars. I just don’t get it.
This concept seems to continue in high school. Kids who either would like to play two or three sports start getting the message that to be really good you have to spend time on just one sport. Most of us know better. We know that the more sports you play, the more skills you build, that will help you be a better overall athlete and better in your primary sport.
As college coaches, I think it is our duty to let all people we come in contact with, whether it be at coaches clinics, speeches, during recruiting, or even around the office, it is important we let everyone know how we feel. Recently helping coach my son’s 6th grade football team I saw the older brother of one of our players. Big kid, great shape. He was a very good high school football player. But when I asked him how the season was going, he said he gave up football (as a hs junior) to play fall lacrosse. He said he was getting attention from the lacrosse coach at my school (Sacred Heart University). So I said to the kid, “Do you think Coach Basti would rather you play lax or football this fall?” The kid replied that obviously the coach would want him to be playing lacrosse. Having had this conversation with many of my fellow coaches, across many sports, I went on to tell the kid that I was 100% sure that coach would prefer him to play football and told him all the reasons why. He was floored and said he would give it a second thought.
When I ask the players on my college baseball team if they have any regrets about their sports experience, to a man, they always tell me they wish they had not given up playing another sport when they were in high school. They realized later that this is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity and you don’t get to even play high school basketball again when you get older.
While I am a big public school proponent, this is one of the things I love about private/prep schools. Many of them in New England require athletes to play three sports, thus making them well rounded as people, teammates, and athletes. Often times you hear about a kid who did something he never did before and loved it. We have a freshman pitcher on my team now who went to Canterbury School and had to pick up diving to meet this requirement. He said he went into it pretty skeptical but came out loving the whole experience.
Let’s do our part to let all our recruits, friends, family, and community know that believe kids should play multiple sports. If not formally on their school teams, then pick up a golf club, tennis raquet, or even bike or skate board and do something athletic outside of what they plan on doing their four years in college. Specialization will come soon enough, why rush it?
Wayne Mazzoni is the pitching coach at Sacred Heart University and writes his blog at www.CoachMazz.com