Since the 1950s, when high school sports was the “talk of the town” much more than so-called higher levels of sports, before television put college and professional sports on its shoulders and lifted their profiles above local high school teams, it was commonplace for students to participate in multiple sports and for coaches to coach a different sport each season. Neither is the norm today.
It is likely that the natural tendency to keep testing one’s talent against the next greater challenge is a significant factor in the trend of students practicing and competing in a single sport year-round, but the introduction of non-school youth sports and the zeal of those programs (often commercially driven but sometimes more purely motivated) to expand those programs to every day of a child’s life has greased the skids toward runaway specialization.
Much of youth sports is well grounded in philosophies which provide safe participation for maximum numbers, but too much of youth sports makes distinctions between the abilities of children too early, and schedules children for too much competition in too-distant locations at tournaments that are too lavish and where trophies are too large. All of which gets their parents thinking too soon about how special their children are and how far they might go in sports, thinking college scholarships and beyond. In pursuit of this dream, they push their children harder, drive them further and pay increasing amounts to get them on the most elite teams.
Some youth sports programs – especially in ice hockey and soccer but also volleyball as well – will require nearly year-round play by students as a condition to be on the club or travel team, promising college scholarships to those who commit to this schedule, but ironically, with the costs of this non-school participation far exceeding the value of the partial athletic scholarship only a few will ever see.
Non-school youth sports is not the sole cause but it is a primary enabler of specialization, an addiction to a single sport that, like all addictions, puts a portion of life out of balance, generally to the detriment of the individual and the people around that person. The research is convincing that while specialization can be positive for a few young people, it is far more likely to have negative than positive consequences, most frequently physical and emotional for the child, and financial for the family.