George Dremousis’ 8-year-old son is talented at soccer, baseball and golf. In all three sports, he plays two years above his age level.
But in this growing era of sport specialization, the Mountlake Terrace High School boys soccer coach already has heard calls for his son to pick one sport and focus on it.
“I’m already being told by coaches that by about 10 or 12 he’s probably going to have to decide which one he wants to do if he wants to play in college,” said Dremousis, who has coached high school and college soccer for more than three decades. “Coaches will come to me and say, ‘If he wants to get to the next level of baseball, he’s really gotta give up soccer in two or three years.’ I’m like, ‘What? That seems crazy to me. The kid is 8 years old.’”
Sport specialization at the youth and high school levels has become increasingly common over the past two decades, mirroring the rise of club and select youth sports programs that often operate on a nearly year-round basis.
The exact definition of sport specialization varies, but it generally refers to athletes who train intensely in one sport for the vast majority of the year at the exclusion of other sports.
According to a University of Wisconsin study that surveyed more than 1,500 athletes at Wisconsin high schools during the 2015-16 school year, 34 percent of the athletes specialized in one sport. Another study, presented in 2017 by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, found the rate of single-sport specialization among high school athletes to be 45 percent.
“Twenty years ago, there was the opportunity to specialize in sports, but it was for a much (smaller) group of athletes,” said Edmonds-Woodway High School athletic director Angie McGuire, who wrote a paper in 2002 about the subject while pursuing her master’s degree. “Now there are so many select or club options that, more than ever, kids are playing a sport year-round.”
Keeping up with the Joneses
One of the leading motivators for sport specialization is the pursuit of college scholarships.
It’s not entirely clear whether specializing increases an athlete’s chances of earning a scholarship — and if so, by how much — but the perception itself has been enough to fuel year-round, single-sport training.
“You have a culture of people trying to start select and AAU (teams) at younger ages, and these programs selling to parents that your kid needs to be training year-round to have a chance,” said Meadowdale High School boys basketball coach Roger O’Neill, who also is an assistant coach for the Mavericks’ baseball and football teams. “And the parents buy it, because they see other kids that are doing it.”
However, several local high school coaches cautioned that college scholarships are scarce, especially at the NCAA Division I level. In sports such as basketball, soccer, baseball and softball, the odds of competing at the D-I level are less than 2.5 percent, according to the NCAA and a 2017-18 survey conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations. The chances of earning a D-I athletic scholarship are even smaller.
“I just hope people don’t get misguided and feel that because they do non-scholastic (athletic) programs, it’s an automatic athletic scholarship waiting at the end, because those are few and far between,” Mountlake Terrace High School boys basketball coach Nalin Sood said.
Local coaches and others also said a “keeping up with the Joneses” dynamic has contributed to the rise of specialization. That applies not only to select programs, but also to the dramatic increase in sport-specific training and camps.
“There’s just so much out there that one can do for their sport,” Jackson High School boys basketball coach Steve Johnson said. “And then when someone else is doing it — a competitor or a rival — you sort of feel like, ‘Well, I’ve got to do it too.’”
“A lot of kids feel like, ‘Oh man, I’m going to be so far behind,’” Jackson High School volleyball coach Mindy Staudinger added. “‘If I don’t start playing and play all the time, I’m going to get left in the dust.’”
Timothy McGuine, author of the University of Wisconsin study, echoed those sentiments.
“(Specialization) is not about getting a college scholarship anymore,” McGuine told The Associated Press in 2016. “… It’s about just getting playing time at their high school with their peers now.”
Time and money limitations
When McGuire was in high school, a lot of girls played both volleyball and basketball. But that was prior to the rise of year-round club programs, and back when sports were typically confined to their traditional seasons.
These days, many high-level prep volleyball players train and compete nearly 11 months per year. They start in late August with high school volleyball, which can go into November. Then they head directly to club volleyball, which can run all the way to July.
Year-round schedules like this often lead athletes to drop a second or third sport they might otherwise have played.
“With certain cut sports, it’s almost impossible to continue playing both,” McGuire said. “I’ve talked to parents whose kids would’ve played (high school) basketball, but didn’t because they went to club volleyball.
“That’s an example where I think the club culture and that pressure totally affects high school sports and whether or not we can continue to have multisport athletes.”
Nowadays, even high school sports teams often train and compete during parts of the offseason. The busiest time is the open period of June and July, when coaches are allowed access to their teams.
“With the way our summer is structured now, it’s really, really difficult for a kid to play three sports — especially team sports,” said Lake Stevens High School boys basketball and boys tennis coach Mark Hein, who pointed to a recent three-sport athlete who juggled high school basketball, high school football and select baseball during the summer.
“It put undue stress on him,” Hein said. “It puts (athletes) sometimes in a position where they might have to drop a sport that they really enjoy doing, or it kind of puts them in a situation where they’re trying to please too many coaches in the summer.”
Sometimes athletes are flat-out prohibited from playing for another team. That’s the case with at least a couple of high-level youth soccer academies in the area that don’t allow their players to play high school soccer.
In addition to time and schedule restraints, money also can limit how many sports a young athlete plays.
According to a recent national survey conducted by the Aspen Institute and Utah State University, families with kids in youth sports are spending an annual average of $693 per child per sport. And for some families, that number was significantly higher — upward of $10,000.
“If you’re a parent nowadays, (it’s) $5,000 to play summer baseball,” Jackson High School baseball coach Kirk Nicholson said. “How many sports can you kick out that money in?”
All these factors have helped fuel the rise of specialization, which in turn has made the traditional three-sport high school athlete a rare breed.
“You’ll get some two-sport athletes, but very few three-sport athletes anymore,” longtime Edmonds-Woodway High School football coach John Gradwohl said.
McGuire and Snohomish High School athletic director Mark Perry both said specialization has negatively impacted turnout in some high school sports. Throughout Wesco, there are plenty of examples of large schools lacking enough athletes in a certain sport to field a C-team — or in some cases, even a junior-varsity team.
Perry said this isn’t only a direct product of kids choosing to specialize, but also a byproduct of specialization that he referred to as self-cutting.
“As kids have started to specialize in the fifth and sixth grade, then at seventh and eighth grade fewer and fewer turn out,” he said. “And then by the time they become ninth-graders, it’s like, ‘Now we know who the players are going to be, so why should I try out?’”
“We’re grouping kids into ‘A’ teams and ‘B’ teams too young,” O’Neill added, “and it’s giving (some) the message that they’re no good and they should try something else. … It’s too bad, because the top 10 kids at a fifth-grade level are never going to be the same 10 kids when they’re seniors, for a bunch of different reasons.
“Grouping kids into ‘you’re good’ and ‘you’re not’ too early I think can hurt in terms of long-term participation.”
Injuries and other risks
Dr. Tommy John, the son of the former Major League Baseball pitcher for whom “Tommy John” elbow surgery is named, used to run a baseball skills-training company in addition to his primary practice of personal training, sports performance training and rehabilitation.
But over the course of eight years and more than 11,000 baseball lessons, Dr. John began noticing a disturbing trend.
“Soft-tissue injuries and degenerative disorders that you should normally see in a 40-, 50-, 60-year-old, we were seeing in 10-, 11-, 12-year-olds,” he said.
That prompted Dr. John to shut down his baseball training facility and enroll in chiropractic school. The former minor-league pitcher now operates a performance and healing center in San Diego for all ages, though most of his clients are under the age of 18. He recently published a book, “Minimize Injury, Maximize Performance: A Sports Parent’s Survival Guide,” in an effort to combat what he referred to as an epidemic of youth sports injuries.
The injury risks of youth sport specialization — particularly at an early age — have been well-documented.
According to the University of Wisconsin study, 46 percent of the athletes who specialized in a single sport had suffered a lower-body injury. That was nearly twice the 24 percent lower-extremity injury rate for multisport athletes.
Meanwhile, a 2010-13 study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that specialized athletes were 1.27 times more likely to get injured and 1.36 times more likely to suffer a serious overuse injury.
Furthermore, according to a survey of college athletes at a D-I school published earlier this year by the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, there’s an even higher injury risk for those who specialize at an early age. Athletes who specialized in their sport before age 14 were more likely to report a history of injury and multiple college injuries.
ESPN recently published an in-depth article detailing the youth basketball system’s effect on the increase in overuse injuries among young NBA players.
“What our orthopedics are telling us is they’re seeing wear-and-tear issues in young players that they didn’t used to see until players were much older,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver reportedly said in 2017.
“Kids are broken by the time they get to college,” Dr. Neeru Jayanthi, Director of Sports Medicine Research and Education at the Atlanta-based Emory Healthcare, told ESPN.
In addition to injuries, the other most-cited risks of specialization are burnout and psychological stress.
“I know a lot of stories where kids went to college and quit playing,” Gradwohl said. “And I said, ‘Why’d you quit playing?’ ‘I’m sick of it. I’ve been doing this since I was 10. I need a break.’
“People don’t think about burnout,” he added. “People don’t think about overuse injuries. … These kids need a break.”
Dr. John said he’s seen an increase in anxiety and depression among young athletes, stemming in part from an inability to succeed in their sport within the high-pressure context of what he referred to as a professionalized youth circuit.
“The decisions we’re making during their youth-sports period,” he said, “are exponential in their lives.”
To specialize or not
Nearly all of the dozen high school coaches interviewed for this story expressed a preference for athletes to play multiple sports as long as possible.
In addition to minimizing the risk of injury and other negative effects of specialization, they mentioned multisport benefits such as cross-training and the potential to gain a wider variety of life experiences.
However, many also acknowledged the current challenges of multisport participation and the performance-based benefits that single-sport specialization can bring.
“If we really do want to develop kids to become better soccer players — in particular at the next level — I do understand the side of it where they say you have to get serious and train year-round,” Dremousis said. “I’ve coached college, and you do have to really train and do it year-round at an elite level to really get to the level where you’re going to be really good in college.”
The general consensus among medical professionals and the coaches interviewed is that specialization should be discouraged at early ages, but could be beneficial when done correctly at a later age. (The few exceptions to specializing later are early-specialization sports such as gymnastics, where peak performance usually occurs at a relatively young age.)
“Some degree of sports specialization is necessary to develop elite-level skill development,” according to a study published in the Sports Health medical journal that drew evidence-based recommendations based on more than two decades of research from a wide variety of sources. “However, for most sports, such intense training in a single sport to the exclusion of others should be delayed until late adolescence to optimize success while minimizing injury, psychological stress and burnout.”
Dr. John said specializing at too young of an age is like trying to build an inverted pyramid.
“Without building a solid foundation first,” his book reads, “the power, speed and strength created by overdeveloping muscles can’t be sustained for very long before the surrounding underdeveloped muscles, joints and ligaments eventually fail to support them.”
“If you take a 9-year-old, 10-year-old, 11-year-old and you specialize them, will they get better? Of course they will,” Dr. John said. “We can increase ability very easily (at young ages), but you won’t last, because there’s no foundation. That inverted pyramid is going to fall over. … We’re increasing ability, and it’s at the expense of durability.”
Dr. John said he recommends sampling a variety of sports at younger ages. Many local coaches echoed that advice, pointing to the benefits of cross-training and the fact athletes’ strengths and skill sets can change as their bodies develop.
“When you’re utilizing different muscle groups — doing different activities, different movements — it strengthens you as an athlete,” Staudinger said. “… And if you get stuck doing one sport (too early), you might miss out on something that you’re great at.”
Dr. John said if an athlete wants to focus on one sport, he or she should wait as long as possible. He said in a perfect world — where the athlete has developed a strong, diverse base and hasn’t been overworked — one could begin doing so at age 13. But he said because athletes currently aren’t developing properly during their youth, he’d recommend waiting at least a couple more years.
“(By that point), they’ve got enough of a base built,” Dr. John said. “They’ve got enough development, emotional ability, intellect and reflexes. They’ve got all these things built up to where they can actually handle a more specialized, rigorous approach.”
Even then, Dr. John and others stressed the importance of taking a break from one’s sport during the offseason. Dr. John said athletes should instead spend that time cross-training to prepare their bodies for the rigors once they return to sport-specific training.
“That’s going to put you in the best position come next (season) to actually be able to enhance your skills,” he said.
Different paths for different athletes
Colby Kyle began playing soccer at a young age and went on to play at the select level for several years, training and competing for 10 or 11 months out of the year. To this day, soccer is his favorite sport to watch.
But after taking up basketball in the fourth grade, developing a love for the game and shooting up the growth chart, the former Monroe High School hoops star eventually realized his future was on the hardwood.
“I’d gotten burned out of playing (soccer) a little bit and I had started focusing more on basketball,” Kyle said. “I’d kind of fallen in love more with basketball.”
Kyle decided to give up soccer by ninth grade and to focus solely on select and high school hoops, where he developed into a D-I prospect. The 6-foot-8 forward is now a sophomore on the Princeton University men’s basketball team.
“I kind of saw a greater future in basketball, because you don’t see too many tall, lanky guys out on the soccer field go pretty far,” Kyle said. “So I decided to go to basketball, and obviously it paid off. I’m not quite sure I would be where I was at in basketball if I hadn’t given up soccer, because it just took up so much time.
“But I also wouldn’t be where I was at if I hadn’t played (soccer growing up). … There’s skills that you learn from playing each sport, and they’re all beneficial toward your development as a player.
“I think I made the decision at the perfect time.”
Will Schafer, another talented recent high school athlete, took a different path.
The 2018 Meadowdale High School graduate was a rare three-sport prep athlete, captaining the Mavericks’ football, basketball and baseball teams. He particularly excelled in football and baseball, earning first-team All-Wesco 3A South honors in both sports.
In addition to playing on three high school teams, Schafer also played select baseball and maintained a 4.0 grade-point average. He now studies engineering at Cal Poly.
Schafer, who credited his coaches for being flexible and understanding with his busy schedule, said he would’ve considered specializing only if he had a serious chance of playing a sport at the D-I level.
“If you think you have a chance at furthering your education by playing a sport in college, then maybe quit one of your other sports and pursue that,” he added. “But in all other cases, I would say continue playing as many sports as you can, … because there’s nothing like those bonds in high school.”
While the best path for a young athlete varies by individual, the most important factor should be a youngster’s passion for the sport, the coaches said.
“Hopefully, slowly but surely, maybe we can get back to what sports are supposed to be about,” O’Neill said. “And then when you have a special talent and when the kid decides they want to specialize and go hard after a dream, then that’s when that should happen. But not because a U-12 coach is telling them they have to train year-round.”