May 31, 2007
The costs of specialization
Even though sports medicine specialists, college coaches and orthopedic surgeons keep hammering the point that playing multiple sports is better than specialization for young athletes, some parents and coaches at the youth level continue to insist that the three-sport high school athlete is going the way of the typewriter, and that to compete in today's world, focus on one sport is a must. And a surprising number of parents think that means specializing at the youngest levels.
They should talk to Monica Mertle, who didn't do any sports until fifth grade and still ended up getting a college scholarship to a Division I school, St. Mary's in Moraga. She told me that as a young girl, "I did all stereotypically girlie things: acting, dance, ballet, singing. I didn't even like sports before fifth grade." At that point she joined for social reasons when everyone was going out for the basketball team at her K-8 Catholic school in Santa Rosa, "and I ended up falling in love with it." She also joined the volleyball team and played on both until high school, when she specialized in basketball. After playing "in some low-key YMCA leagues" in sixth grade, she moved on to AAU basketball in seventh. "And that's when it got really serious. That's when it became all year."
Monica questions the reasoning of pushing kids to specialize at a young age in order to get a scholarship down the line. "The parents have such an important role in this," she says. "I mean, when yo u're 5, you're going to do what your parents say. At that age, their kid should be playing on the swings and maybe have a good time with their sport, and practice on the weekends or whatever. Grade school is a good time to do what you want and try out different sports. By the time high school came around, I was completely comfortable making the decision that I just wanted to play basketball.
"If you get too serious when a child is 5, 6, 7 years old, it's easy to understand how it becomes a chore. Because kids that age want to go to the playground and run around and play in the dirt. They don't want to do all these drills. A parent really has to be in tune with whether their child is having fun. Because the minute it stops being fun, they don't want to do it anymore."