Don’t specialize, enjoy a few sports | Column

Specialization in sports is a function of logic: to play any sport well, one must practice; to be competitive, one must practice often; to practice often enough to be competitive today, one must practice all year long.

  • Wednesday, August 27, 2008 8:00am
  • Sports

Specialization in sports is a function of logic: to play any sport well, one must practice; to be competitive, one must practice often; to practice often enough to be competitive today, one must practice all year long.

Specialized athletes are palpably, measurably, objectively better than those who play everything. Vashon coaches see this whenever they bring comparable and sometimes superior kid-athletes to tournaments off-Island: we get beat like a drum, often by less-talented kids who have obviously spent more time practicing than the Island athletes did.

Times have changed. The demand on time now created by any one sport necessarily excludes play in other sports. Thirty years ago everyone knew a three-sport athlete. Gradually, there were two-sport athletes (Bo Jackson and Dion Sanders).

Today’s sports stars typically never starred at anything other than their specialty: Lebron James once tried on a football uniform; Kobe Bryant played basketball and denied everything else. Whatever the cause, kids today are pressured to select one sport over others, usually by the time they are 12, sometimes at an even younger age.

Most sports have adopted and adapted to this specialization with what some call “Season Creep.” Where there were once clearly defined sports seasons, today those seasons have spread like English Ivy to cover other sports, ultimately blanketing the entire year with soccer, baseball, basketball, and even lacrosse and swimming.

This creep allows for development of greater skills in a specialized sport, but it drains the pool of athletes available for other sports. This is pernicious on Vashon, since we have so few kids in the first place. Kids who choose to play a sport that has flagged in the competition for players can wind up having no team to join.

The rewards for a tiny percentage of those who specialize can be huge — the Olympics, professional contracts, even world notoriety. The retribution, however, is often boredom and burnout.

The reality is that most specialized athletes don’t become professional athletes. Most don’t earn athletic scholarships. Most don’t even play in college.

Our experienced coaches know this. I heard a basketball coach tell a group of boys that she held the secret for getting a scholarship to college, and she had that secret right in her pocket. The boys (and I) all leaned forward to pay attention. She pulled out a library card and explained that using the library was the best way to earn a scholarship.

She was right, of course.

Coaches know the truth, but as parents we sometimes refuse to see it. Perhaps we confuse our dreams with those of our children. Although dreams are essential to our sanity and success, it is important to be realistic about yourself and your kids.

I had a relative who liked to say, “You plant a squash; you get a squash.” Set aside her enjoyment in comparing me to a ground-hugging vegetable, and the metaphor makes a solid point: Don’t expect more of your kids than you can expect of yourself. Or, bluntly, if you’re not seven feet tall and as fast as Usain Bolt, don’t expect your kids to be.

If we are realistic about ourselves, perhaps then we might encourage our kids to play multiple sports, for fun. We encourage our kids to explore music, adventure, languages and multiple topics at school. We admire those with diverse skills as multi-talented, factotum, brilliant. Moreover, playing many different sports helps kids — and parents — remember sports are games designed for enjoyment, not jobs. But don’t take it from me, listen to former Mariners pitcher Jamie Moyer.

My 15-year-old nephew in Magnolia plays baseball with one of Moyer’s sons. My nephew played nothing else but baseball between the ages of 9 and 13.

A few years back, my nephew ran into Jamie Moyer in the orthodontist’s office, where Jamie was present to pick up one of his children. Jamie told my nephew that the most important thing to do in sports was to play as many as you could. Enjoy them all. My nephew heeded the advice and went back to basketball, soccer and even tried track. He now enjoys them all, along with baseball.

A few weeks ago, my nephew represented Magnolia in a baseball World Series for his age level, so his newfound diversity doesn’t appear to have hurt his hitting or pitching.

Jamie didn’t discourage my nephew’s dreams of becoming a professional baseball player. Jamie’s point, I think, was to make sure my nephew didn’t miss out on fun because he was too serious about baseball. It is good advice. It is okay to dream, but don’t let sports dreams steer you away from enjoying sports.

— David Jennings is a sports dad who was never talented enough to justify specializing in any sports.


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