When Bill Husak’s son, Todd, was a teenager, he dreamt of becoming a big-time quarterback. Unfortunately, he was not very big. While many parents might suggest that their son either give up the sport or dedicate more time to it, Bill had a counterintuitive idea: He wanted his son to play more soccer. “You can’t play any sport without having great feet, and there’s no sport that develops feet better than soccer,” Husak says. “In football, Todd wasn’t the fastest kid by any imagination, but he was very elusive, and he didn’t get tackled for losses very often. He had a real awareness of the people around him. I think soccer helped to develop all of that.”
Husak’s advice was based not only on his own history as a multisport athlete while growing up in central New York, but also on the knowledge he gained as an athletics administrator. He spent 19 years as a professor and associate athletics director at California State University, Long Beach before becoming athletic director at Loyola Marymount University in 1998. Todd became an all-league high school soccer player, and, thanks largely to that cross-training, he went on to have an outstanding football career — first at St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, California, and later at Stanford University, where he led the Cardinal to the 2000 Rose Bowl. He was drafted in the sixth round by the NFL’s Washington Redskins.
For all the statistics Todd accrued on the football field, however, the number that he and his dad are most grateful for is zero. That’s the number of surgeries Todd had during his entire playing career. Luck obviously played a part in that, but Bill firmly believes it can also be attributed to his son’s history of playing multiple sports.
Now in his 19th year as LMU AD, Husak sees a world that is far different — and far more troubling — than the one in which his son grew up. Athletes who matriculate to LMU increasingly specialize in a single sport at an earlier age than ever before. Husak believes doing so takes a psychological and physical toll on them. “We see so many kids who play one sport coming in. They’re 18 years old, but they have the injuries of a 28-year-old,” he says. “When I was growing up, we played three months of football. Then we moved to three months of basketball, and then three months of baseball. In the summer, we played all three. I think that kind of variety is healthy.”
The trend Husak has witnessed up close is not confined to Southern California. According to a study commissioned by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, more than 28.6 million children ages 6 to 17 were playing a team sport in 2015, an increase of almost three million over the previous two years. However, the average number of sports played by those youngsters declined over that same period from 2.09 to 1.89. There is no sign that this trend is abating, despite a growing mountain of research indicating that specialization is harmful to the athletes.
“It has gradually increased to the point where if any kid after the age of 10 shows some early talent, they tend to attract a coach who wants to give private lessons or put them on a travel team to play that sport year-round,” says Jim Thompson, the founder and CEO of Positive Coaching Alliance, a nonprofit organization that promotes youth sports under the mantra Better Athletes, Better People.
“The sales pitch is usually, ‘Your son or daughter could make the high school soccer team, but they really have to play soccer year-round in order to be able to do that,’” Thompson says. “The problem is that all the research indicates that having kids play more than one sport is better for them.”
This trend is perplexing, given the many reasons why early specialization is a bad idea for young athletes. The most prominent three reasons are:
It leads to injuries.
Playing a single sport at a young age leads to what are known as “repetitive-motion” injuries. These are maladies that result from a single athletic motion being performed over and over that is especially damaging on a body that is small, young and growing. The result is an explosion of injuries that in the past have typically been found in much older individuals.
The most obvious example of a repetitive-motion injury is associated with so-called Tommy John surgery. That is a procedure in which a pitcher’s arm is repaired by grafting a ligament from another part of the person’s body or a cadaver onto the elbow. The operation was considered a breakthrough when performed in 1974 on John, who was a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers. At the time, John was 31. Nowadays, the number of patients who need the surgery are more numerous, and they’re younger. In 2015, the American Journal of Sports Medicine reported that of all the Tommy John surgeries performed in the U.S. that year, 60 percent were done on patients ages 15 to 19.
“Parents should get out of the way and let the kids be kids,” Dabo Swinney said.
The problem goes beyond baseball. Harvard orthopedist Lyle Micheli, M.D., founder of The Micheli Center for Sports Injury Prevention, told ESPN Magazine in 2014 that, in the 1990s, he saw barely a dozen ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) tears suffered by patients under 14. Now, he sees five times as many. “Most of them are [travel-sport] kids,” he said. Doctors are also reporting a dramatic increase in Osgood-Schlatter disease, a knee-area inflammation, and Sever’s disease, a bone injury of the heel, both of which are conditions that in the past were found primarily in adults.
Like Todd Husak, Lynn Flanagan ’91, who set 18 program records in women’s basketball and was the program’s first inductee into the LMU Athletics Hall of Fame, played high-level sports for many years and never had a surgery. She credits that to her early years as a gymnast. “Gymnastics teaches you body control and balance. Your core is stronger, and you know how to land without hurting yourself,” Flanagan says. “I never had a serious injury in high school or college, never missed a game. I attribute that to gymnastics.”
It hinders physical and mental development.
Focusing on one sport usually means emphasizing a particular set of muscles. If a young person isn’t exerting his or her body in a properly balanced way, that activity will eventually produce a body that is not well-suited for athletic success. This is a major reason why youth sports researchers Jean Cote and Jessica Fraser-Thomas have argued that specialization is best delayed until after age 20. Their research shows that prior to the age of 12, athletes should spend at least 80 percent of their time outside their chosen sport.
Diversity of play also enhances an athlete’s understanding of all sports. Playing basketball and lacrosse teaches principles of spacing, angles and movement that translate very well to the soccer field. Moving from side to side in order to zero in on a tennis ball teaches timing and reaction skills that would help a shortstop to field grounders. Wrestling promotes an understanding of strength and leverage that could make an offensive lineman more effective. All these sports expose young athletes to competition and a wider variety of players with different builds, personalities and nationalities. They also force young people into uncomfortable situations that they must fight through, which ultimately makes them better competitors in sports and in life. Says Thompson, “I like what Cal Ripken used to say: ‘Tell me the rules, and I’ll learn to compete.’ I wish more young athletes and their parents thought like that.”
It leads to burnout.
When sport becomes ultraserious, it also becomes less fun. If a boy or girl faces too much pressure to perform at a young age, then he or she is more likely to stop wanting to play later. This goes beyond their athletics career. A study by Ohio State University found that children who focused on playing a single sport wound up becoming more inactive as adults than those who played multiple sports.
Kids often start playing sports because it’s fun and they want to be with their friends, but once they start playing the same sport year-round in intensely competitive environments (which often means going through stressful annual club tryouts), their enthusiasm tends to wane. That inevitably affects performance.
After an LMU pitching career that twice earned him All-American honors, Billy Traber ’01 pitched for four Major League Baseball teams during a nine-year pro career. He is grateful for that experience, but his fondest memories are from his teenage years spent in El Segundo playing soccer and football with his friends. Now that he is the varsity baseball coach at El Segundo High School, his alma mater, Traber wants his players to enjoy that same upbringing. “We definitely promote them to play anything and everything,” he says. “It’s a nice mental break. Having played professionally for a while, I can tell you it’s really hard to live and die by a sport all year long.”
To be sure, there is a credible argument to be made for the benefits of early specialization — at least in the short term. If two boys of about equal size and ability are competing for the same position on a team, the one who plays that sport year-round will likely be better than the one who plays multiple sports. “If you start focusing on one sport at an early age, you learn better skills,” says Ben Howland, the former UCLA basketball coach who is now at Mississippi State University. “If I’m trying to compete against you and you’re playing three sports and I’m playing one, I will be better at my one sport than you will be. Absolutely.”
Howland is an elite college basketball coach, so his anecdotal observation about the benefits of early specialization has merit. Many national sports organizations agree, from the Amateur Athletic Union, which holds national tournaments in boys and girls basketball beginning with an 8 and Under division, to U.S. Youth Soccer, which encourages early specialization through its Olympic Development Program. “Our technical approach is the same as what the national team works on,” Sam Snow, coaching director for U.S. Youth Soccer, said in 2014. “It’s intended to be part of the ladder of getting to the highest level.”
That philosophy, however, is increasingly at odds with the emerging research. A study published in 2013 by the Journal of Sports Sciences found that young athletes who played three sports were significantly more likely to compete at an elite national level than athletes who specialized. Multisport athletes were also found to have better coordination, strength, speed, agility and fitness. The American Medical Society for Sports Medicine published a study that same year reporting that 88 percent of college athletes surveyed played more than one sport as a child.
“I tell people, ‘Whatever age you’re tempted to have your son or daughter specialize, wait at least one more year.’”
And those are only the athletes who make it that far. There are nearly 500,000 boys who play high school baseball in America, but barely 2 percent of them will play for a Division I college, and only about 1 in 170 will get drafted by a major league team. Given the overwhelming evidence that early specialization is detrimental in the long run and the astronomically long odds facing a young athlete who wants a Division I scholarship, much less a professional career, why do we see this trend toward specialization continuing to increase?
The answer, for the most part, is economics. The costs of higher education in the United States have never been higher, and they are increasing far faster than the rate of inflation. Even if the odds of getting a scholarship are long, many parents believe it is worth suffering the downsides of early specialization if it maximizes the chances that they might save money down the road.
Michelle Myers, head coach of LMU women’s soccer, says she sometimes sees parents who instead meet shock and bitterness at the end of that road. According to the NCAA, Division I soccer is an “equivalency” sport when it comes to scholarships: A team has a set number of scholarships but it is permitted to divide them up and offer scholarship money to more players. For some parents, Myers says, the pay-off is, instead, a painful awakening.
“These parents feel they’ve spent a lot of money to put their kids through the top leagues, on travel teams, in private training,” Myers says. “They feel they’re entitled to a college scholarship, but it doesn’t work that way. We’re an equivalency sport. We only have 14 scholarships for 28 women. If you do the math, not everyone is getting even close to a full scholarship; it may be closer to 50 percent.”
The greater economic force, however, is the booming private club industry. In a private club, young boys and girls get expert training from coaches who typically have played at a high level, perhaps professionally. The clubs also offer first-rate facilities, cool uniforms and access to quality competition. In return, the clubs ask for membership fees that can be quite steep, as well as a year-round commitment that leaves little time to play anything else. If parents do not want to spend the money or make the time commitment, plenty of others are ready to do that for their children, who perhaps get a leg up on the competition.
“Most parents recognize it’s probably not a good thing for their kid to specialize, but they also don’t want their kid to be at a disadvantage,” Thompson says. “We’ll do 2,800 workshops this year around the country, and many of them are for parents. Almost always, the first or second question is, ‘What do I do about a coach who wants my kids to play baseball or soccer or tennis year-round?’ I tell people, ‘Whatever age you’re tempted to have your son or daughter specialize, wait at least one more year.’”
Flanagan, who coaches varsity girls basketball at Redondo Union High School and is the co-founder of South Bay Breakers, a basketball club for girls, sees a lot of parents struggle with that same question. “They come to us all the time and say, ‘We’re so sorry, but if she doesn’t go to soccer, they’re going to take her off the team or she’s not going to get to play,’” Flanagan says. “And the kid is in fifth or sixth grade. We’re like, what? We like to be flexible. We want you to be at tournaments, but if you can’t come, we’re not going to kick you off the team or not play you. We’re not out there to win. We’re out there to develop girls.”
Many parents buy into the line of thinking that if their children don’t specialize, they will fall hopelessly behind. They subscribe to the 10,000 hours theory popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s blockbuster 2008 book, “Outliers.” Gladwell used the experiences of high-achievers like The Beatles and Bill Gates to argue that it requires 10,000 hours of practice to achieve excellence in any field. The publication of that book was, well, a tipping point, turning loose millions of parents in a race to start their children’s clocks early. While there is no doubt that excellence requires time and dedication, becoming the next Paul McCartney is not just a matter of math. David Epstein reported in his best-selling book, “The Sports Gene,” that in sports such as basketball, field hockey and wrestling, the number of practice hours required for excellence is closer to 4,000 than 10,000. Even the author of the study cited by Gladwell, K. Anders Ericsson, has argued that Gladwell’s representation of his work was, at best, incomplete, ignoring as it did elements such as genetics and participation opportunities that also yield high-level achievement.
Parents often cite top international players who have played one sport as examples to follow. But this ignores the fact that in Europe, the clubs budget extensive time for free, deliberate play. They encourage kids to try multiple positions and teach players to be creative on the pitch, even if it means less winning. They also integrate training regimens designed to enhance a player’s long-term development and hire extensive staffs that include nutritionists, chefs, psychologists and academic tutors. And then there’s another overlooked fact, Myers notes — Alex Morgan, perhaps the star of the U.S. women’s national soccer team, didn’t start specializing in the sport until after high school.
Many of the staunchest advocates for playing multiple sports are athletes and coaches who reached levels of competition that most parents can only dream of for their children. Traber intends to ensure that if his 2-year-old son, Bruce, starts to show an interest in sports, the child will have much the same experience his father had. “I don’t want my son to be fearful of trying something new,” Traber says. “It’s fun playing sports, but when it’s your job, it’s a little bit different. The last thing I would want is for my son to think of sports like that at a young age.”
Before Ohio State and Clemson met in the 2016 College Football Playoff semifinal, both head coaches espoused the virtues of playing multiple sports. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney pointed out that in the 2015 NFL draft, 90 percent of the players selected in the first round were multisport athletes in high school. “Parents should get out of the way and let the kids be kids,” Swinney said. “I think it’ll all work itself out. There’s enough pressure. If you’re good enough, you’re going to be good enough.”
Since this trend is mostly driven by money, any possibility of reversing it will likely have to be driven by financial concerns as well. Thompson offers an intriguing scenario that someday a new type of club could emerge whereby a group of qualified coaches from different sports form teams that compete through the seasons. Says Thompson, “My instinct is if you had that kind of program, kids would love it, and it would be a successful business model.”
That would be a welcome development in the eyes of Bill Husak. Even though his own children are too old to play youth sports, he has devoted his adult life to the betterment of athletes. He would like nothing more than to see the people who raise the next generation become empowered to make better decisions for their children. “I realize it’s really hard to be the salmon who swims upstream,” Husak says. “Kids need to play a variety of things because when they’re young, they don’t know what they really like. So if you really care about the health and welfare of your child, then let them play a variety of activities. Because in the long run, it is healthier for them.”