Does doing just 1 sport give edge on scholarships?

Jason Rossi has the story in My Suburban Life near Chicago about high school athletes who specialize in one sport, believing that doing so will improve their chances of receiving a college scholarship in that sport.


Tom Brady in 2013 (Elsa/Getty Images)

A significant trend in recent years has been that high school athletes play one sport, say baseball or soccer, during the school season for that sport and then compete on club teams for that same sport during the off-season instead of participating in different sports at school. It’s happening at Lyons Township, J Sterling Morton, and Riverside-Brookfield high schools in Chicago’s near-western suburbs, according to the article.

But research from 2000 and from 2013 would support the recommendation that student-athletes not specialize in a single sport during high school. Doing so, research suggests, may increase the risk of

  • injury from overtraining or failure to rest muscle groups
  • burnout from an increased focus or workout intensity
  • limited options from a failure to diversify interest range

From the peer-reviewed American Journal of Sports Medicine, Feb 2:

Injured young athletes were older and spent more hours per week in organized sports. There is an independent risk of injury and serious overuse injury in young athletes who specialize in a single sport. Growth rate was not related to injury risk. The study data provide guidance for clinicians counseling young athletes and their parents regarding injury risks associated with sports specialization.

And here’s the consensus statement on youth athletic development from the International Olympic Committee, published on May 18:

Children are increasingly specializing in a sport at an early age, beyond the customary early specialization seen in gymnastics, swimming, diving, and figure skating. Various factors account for this contemporary phenomenon, including investment by the myriad stakeholders involved in sports, as well as incentives for Olympic and other athletic success. This has led to the development of talent identification and development schemes, aimed to identify and guide youth athletes towards professional sports, and/or Olympic achievement. The result has been an increase in competitiveness and professionalization within youth sport itself, intensified and expanded physical training and increased competition volume and frequency with insufficient allocation of time for rest and recovery. One consequence is an ongoing escalation in sport-related injuries and health problems at all levels of youth sports, including overuse injury, overtraining, and burnout.

In contrast to premature emphasis on a single sport, research suggests that youth should avoid early sport specialization, as diverse athletic exposure and sport sampling enhance motor development and athletic capacity, reduce injury risk, and increase the opportunity for a child to discover the sport(s) that he/she will enjoy and possibly excel at. Numerous successful elite athletes participated in several sports before specializing. However, the message would be reinforced with more definitive evidence indicating that children who participate in a variety of sports and specialize only after reaching the age of puberty, for example, tend to be more consistent performers, have fewer injuries, and adhere to sports play longer than those who specialize early.

Editorial

John McEnroe, who played what has been called the greatest tennis match in history in the Wimbledon finals at the age of 21, played basketball, soccer, and tennis in high school at Manhattan’s Trinity School. Tom Brady, four-time Super Bowl champion quarterback for the New England Patriots, played baseball and football at California’s Junipero Serra High School before passing up an opportunity to play professional baseball in order to play on the football team at the University of Michigan. At least he had the option.

And although every boy and girl in Illinois high schools isn’t a superstar like Mr Brady or Mr McEnroe, athletes who achieve the highest levels of performance in a sport are those who diversify their athletic participation and develop different skill sets of athleticism. They also give key muscle groups a rest while participating in other sports, like giving jumping muscles a rest from basketball in the winter by playing baseball in the spring.

“I don’t like it, but I think you have to do it,” My Suburban Life quoted J Morton Sterling varsity boys’ basketball coach Tony Martinucci as saying. “The shame of it is—and I’m going through this with my daughter now—you can’t really play multiple sports anymore. Everyone has gone into specialization now because if you don’t do it somebody else is going to do it and they’re going to get better than you.”

The paper quoted Sue Keck, 1st Alliance Volleyball Club director and founder and former Immaculate Heart of Mary High School volleyball coach, as saying, “High school volleyball is not where the scholarships come from: You pretty much have to play club to get that scholarship.”

It’s a matter of balancing risks and potential rewards. If student-athletes have a greater risk of burnout, injury, and quitting, what good does an increased chance of getting a scholarship do? How much of an increase are we talking about? Data are clear when it comes to the risks, so are they as clear when it comes to the increased benefit? I can’t find any data to support this claim, and I seriously doubt any increased chance of getting a scholarship exists when students specialize, especially if any increase were to be offset by the increased risk of an early career-ending injury, burnout, or other sport-specific overtraining.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.