Each single-sport organization promoted its own sport, and coaches of those sports tended to pressure athletes to focus on a single sport early in life and eventually exclusively. Parents bought into the fantasy that this early single-mindedness was the key to a college athletic scholarship and even a professional sports career.
While we spoke of a high-minded philosophy, on the local level, as a practical matter, more and more coaches and athletes were pursuing an ever-narrower sports experience. Until now.
Starting very recently, the conversation has changed, or at least it’s been joined by new voices. We’ve learned that Big Ten football coaches favor recruits who play more than football in high school. We’ve learned that our fantastic Women’s World Cup Soccer champions were almost all multiple-sport athletes in secondary school. We’ve learned that the hottest young U.S. golfer on the Men’s PGA Tour was a multiple-sport enthusiast in his teens. We’ve seen a half-dozen high profile sports executives with school-aged children advocate for a more balanced experience for their kids. And now we see several dozen amateur and professional sports organizations have joined a campaign to oppose the negative trends in youth sports and to promote a more balanced, healthier sports experience for children and adolescents.
And there it is – a healthier experience. Suddenly, our philosophy that multiple-sport participation is better for youth than sport specialization has been made a health and safety issue, which we’ve known all along but have not emphasized enough.
Now, with attention to over-use injuries and burnout, sport specialization has become a health and safety crisis on the level of concussions, heat illness and sudden cardiac arrest. Multi-sport participation has become a health and safety imperative. A matter of good public policy.
We need to catch and ride this wave for all it’s worth. In the same way the environmental movement catches fire when presented as a human rights issue – that people everywhere have a basic right to clean air and water – we must present sport specialization as a threat to young persons’ health and safety – a risk as great as head trauma, heat illness and heart failure, requiring the kind of bold policies and programs we’ve implemented in recent years to address those equally serious problems.