Commentary: Sport specialization can do more harm than good

Houston Texans superstar J.J. Watt said he hopes to coach high school football after he retires from the NFL (Photo: John David Mercer/USA TODAY Sports Images) J.J. Watt (Photo: John David Mercer/USA TODAY Sports Images)

Commentary: Sport specialization can do more harm than good


Commentary: Sport specialization can do more harm than good


More student-athletes are gaining the benefits, fun and rewards of high school sports than ever before. Studies support the notion that athletics advance the health of our young people and make a positive difference in their lives. But there’s more to this story.

Underreported are the added benefits of playing multiple sports and the harm done by specializing in one sport at a young age.

MORE: Nearly 90 percent of players chosen in NFL draft played multiple sports in high school

The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) and USA Football work together to strengthen the benefits of participation in high school sports. Through coach education and best practices, our organizations partner for a mutual goal of better, more engaging and safer play.

Most recently, our two organizations shared in the excitement with millions of Americans by tuning into the 2017 NFL Draft while a record-breaking crowd of fans in Philadelphia cheered for their favorite team in person.

When 32 young men spanning nine positions were selected by NFL teams during the draft’s first round, their football credentials and statistics were amplified across television and radio networks, online news outlets and social media. Not as liberally shared was the fact that 30 of them – 94 percent – played multiple sports in high school.

Contrary to popular belief, even the world’s best athletes in a given sport don’t specialize in it. Gaining skills across a variety of sports propels physical literacy and other advantages.

J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans and Pewaukee (Wis.) is recognized as one of the league’s best defensive ends, but how many know that he also played basketball, baseball and track and field? Quarterback Patrick Mahomes II of Whitehouse (Texas), drafted No. 10 overall by the Kansas City Chiefs, strengthened his athletic ability by lettering in basketball and baseball as well.

Or what about the No. 1 overall pick by the Cleveland Browns, Myles Garrett? He participated in basketball and track and field at Martin (Texas).

These are just three of many examples that parents and coaches need to share with their children and student-athletes while under their care. Watt, Mahomes, Garrett, and many others drafted this weekend shatter the false narrative that sport specialization delivers preferred outcomes for students.

High school student-athletes eyeing potential scholarship offers or a starting role on their team may benefit from specific-sport training, but the benefits of playing more than one sport are too great to ignore.

According to the Positive Coaching Alliance, athletes who specialize in one sport at an early age may be at risk of “burnout” from physical and emotional stress, miss social and educational opportunities and experience disruptions within family life.

RELATED: Reducing Risk in Sports: Athlete Burnout

Project Play, an initiative of The Aspen Institute, reports that early specialization does more harm than good. These negative factors include increasing the risk of overuse injuries in developing bodies, causing young athletes to burn out and quit sports altogether, and decrease overall athletic development.

The NFHS Summit on Enhancing Participation reported preliminary research suggests that specialized youth and high school athletes are at increased risk of injury compared to their multi-sport classmates.

Young people involved in more than one sport have greater opportunities to forge new friendships or deepen those they already have with teammates who share their multi-sport experiences. They also benefit from having additional positive role models in the form of coaches and volunteers.

Four years of high school can seem to transpire in the snap of a finger, but the benefits of playing two or more sports can last a lifetime.

Bob Gardner is the Executive Director of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), Scott Hallenbeck is the CEO and Executive Director of USA Football. Both organizations are based in Indianapolis.


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