Young athletes confront pressure to specialize in a single sport, despite risks |

We hear this message over an over, yet the growing trend is to specialize in one sport. Perhaps Steve Boyle is another voice that might break through to many parents and coaches.

Steve Boyle remembers exactly when he realized that young athletes faced too much pressure to specialize in a single sport.

Boyle’s daughter had tried out for a local travel soccer team, and the coach was on the phone, explaining that the 9-year-old was his top prospect and would fit perfectly into his schematic system. Then, as Boyle recalls it, he asked how the travel team’s schedule would affect his daughter’s desire to play lacrosse in the spring. The coach went silent.

“It went from ‘No. 1 prospect’ to ‘no longer interested’ simply because of a 9-year-old’s interest in another sport,” Boyle remembered recently, more than 10 years later. “And I thought, ‘I cannot believe how much the world has changed.’”

Soon after that phone call, Boyle started 2-4-1 Sports, an organization that hosts multi-sport camps and clinics and advocates for athletes to sample different sports, instead of sticking to one. (The organization’s name comes from the credo that, “Life’s 2 short 4 just 1 sport.”) Last year, he quit his job in the West Hartford school system — where he had coached track and field, soccer, basketball and lacrosse and also served as a guidance counselor — to focus full-time on the cause.

Coaches and administrators across Connecticut have witnessed up close a national trend over the past 10 or 15 years in which kids specialize in a single sport in elementary or middle school, playing year-round for club and travel teams in pursuit of elusive college scholarships, despite the risk of injury, burnout and stalled development.

And although specialization can make sense for self-motivated elite athletes with credible dreams of professional or Olympic careers, experts say the trend has spread too far.

“I think it’s sort of in the water in a lot of places,” said Steve Smith, a sports psychologist who has studied specialization. “It just feels like there’s this pressure culturally for kids to be the best at everything and to really bolt in and know what they want to do really early. We’ve lost the multi-sport athlete.”

“When you play a lot of different sports, there’s more compensatory muscle development, bone growth and that kind of thing,” Smith said. “If you have a kid who’s playing baseball during baseball season but is also running track or playing basketball, just think about all the muscle development that goes along with that.”

Even college coaches, who would have reason to prefer more polished high-school prospects, often voice a preference for multi-sport athletes. UConn football coach Randy Edsall said recently that he likes to watch recruits play other sports as part of his evaluation process so he can see their full range of skills.

“I love the multi-sport athletes,” Edsall said. “I would rather have guys that are multi-sport because then they haven’t maxed out. These guys that are playing one sport and doing it year in and year out, over and over and over again, sometimes they don’t have the upside because they’re tapped out.”

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