BOZEMAN — I’m not sure when my disillusionment with specialization in youth athletics intensified — maybe when my son was required to choose one sport out of four he loved, maybe upon discovering the wallet- and vacation-draining costs of "select" teams, or maybe after listening to (supposed) adults heckling 10-year-old girl soccer players — but for some time now raising the topic with me is akin to goading your cranky uncle into talking politics at Thanksgiving.
I’d begin gently enough with a cautionary tale about meal times in the drive-thru at Burger King, family time huddled around a TV at the Holiday Inn Express, and life generally revolving around the schedules of 8- and 11-year-olds. Eventually I’d evolve to a line akin to, “If covering the cost of higher education was the end game you could’ve instead opened a 529 College Savings Plan and padded it with all the money you'll spend on participation fees, uniforms, shoes, gas, hotels, airplane tickets and Whoppers.”
Because, parents, isn’t that what specialization is mostly about, ultimately? A college scholarship?
If any fledgling moms or dads were still in the same area code by that point in my diatribe, I’d finish with a conviction I held with no glee yet believe is truer today than ever.
For the vast majority of young athletes, specialization isn’t helping your son or daughter get better.
It’s hurting them (literally, in too many cases).
I was reminded of the topic when I gleaned a significant little nugget from the recent NFL Draft. A whopping 91 percent of the players drafted didn’t specialize until college.
Turns out you can play for pay without having to pay to play a single sport from the moment you graduate from diapers to pull-ups.
That may seem counter-intuitive, given the fear of your kid falling behind those who do commit to a single sport year-round, but many folks have long believed a great athlete will excel even if he or she waits until college to specialize.
In fact, the last three NFL drafts reinforce this (in 2017, 30 of the first 32 picks were multi-sport athletes).
And it makes sense.
Indeed, a former Major League Baseball player who repeatedly decried how specialized sports were harming our kids once told me the surest way to produce great diamond stars again in America is sending kids back to the sandlot — sans parents.
Us late Boomers played for hours until we couldn’t see the ball in the darkness, took hundreds of swings, fielded hundreds of grounders and caught hundreds of high flies every day. We improved through repetition that’s tough to simulate in today’s specialized world.
We moved through the football and basketball seasons in much the same way, throwing and shooting and dribbling and passing.
Think of all the American kids who honed their basketball skills for all hours on courts in the park or driveway. Think of all the Dominican kids whose baseball journeys began by hitting a balled-up old sock with a stick in the street.
Today’s kids receive better coaching but a fraction of the action. They're also subject to more injuries at an earlier age.
Certainly the traveling teams my kids played for from the time they were 10 had redeeming values.
They learned teamwork. They developed friendships. They made memories in places they otherwise might not have visited.
By the time they reached their teens, their club soccer teams were well-oiled machines I couldn’t help but objectively admire.
At the same time, and in 20-20 hindsight, for me the flip-side costs exceeded the benefits.
The heckling parents who should’ve known better. The late mom-or-pop taxi service to and from the practice field. The exhausted eyes glossing over homework at 10 p.m.
The longing to join other friends on other teams in other sports.
Then there was the impact on quality family time.
While living in western Oregon, we spent months one year planning a trip to Glacier National Park. When the time finally arrived, my daughter, aggrieved over what missing a few practices and games would mean for her standing on her soccer team, pleaded with me to stay home.
Grudgingly, after lengthy debate and more than a few tears, I ceded.
My older son did join us and to this day recounts seeing grizzly bears, hiking a few feet from mountain goats, and time spent sharing stories and playing cards in the camper. My daughter doesn’t recall a single moment of a soccer practice or game that week, a reality she understandably couldn’t reconcile then in her peer-pressurized world but certainly does today as an adult.
Over time, I gradually realized what was evolving under my parental watch.
But it was too late. The frog was cooked.
Even now, two decades later, I often think about those years and wonder what I would’ve or could’ve done differently.
Truth is, ALL the kids who played sports were in some organized program and what sandlots remained in town were vacant testaments to a bygone era. And until the latter years, when the practices and games became a grinding chore, my kids loved it.
But lurking behind the self-assuredness that we were helping our kids become better players was the gnawing specter that their specialization was more for us than them. In the short-term it was about the security of reliable supervision in a seemingly unreliable world, and in the long-term it was about those scholarships.
In the process, we were’t allowing our kids to be ... kids.
The irony was that both of mine did have offers to play college soccer and yet both chose academic paths. I now wonder if they might've continued had they not specialized.
Regardless, at least now I can look at the NFL draft and say to parents of budding athletes, “Look, it CAN be done without specialization!”
I could then offer to share my story, but like the angry uncle at Thanksgiving you probably don’t want to get me started.