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From the Quad

Diversifying Sports Strengthens Young Athletes

One of parenthood's great joys is watching a child develop strength, skill, and a sense of teamwork in sports. From town leagues to travel teams, modern society offers a myriad of opportunities for young athletes to develop. Unfortunately, in today's prevalent culture, many children specialize too early, risking injury and burnout at a surprisingly young age.

In generations past, each sport was played in its season: children cycled through soccer or football in the fall, hockey or basketball in the winter, baseball or lacrosse in the spring, and swimming in the summer. Now, however, some teams in any given sport require year-round play for advancement. Thus athletes must choose one or maybe two sports at a very early age in order to have a manageable daily schedule. A three-year study conducted by Loyola University in Chicago found that one third of young athletes in the sample, with an average age of 13 years, had already quit multiple sports in order to focus on one sport for eight months out of the year. The same study also showed that these hyper-specialized athletes had a 36 percent increased chance of injury due to repetitive stress on still-growing muscles and bones. Other studies show that these focused athletes are actually less likely to eventually play that sport at an elite competitive level.

It is easy for families to find themselves in this situation. Some mistakenly believe that early specialization will pay off in making candidates more attractive to highly competitive boarding schools and colleges, perhaps even securing scholarships based on athletic talent. Yes, boarding schools—and colleges—seek standout student athletes. But having worked with so many young athletes over the years, these coaches recognize how playing multiple sports into the teen years strengthens players. Research backs this experience up, documenting that multi-sport athletes are more resistant to injury and have stronger anticipatory skills when a play is in motion.

For the vast majority of student athletes, the true value of sports comes from the pride in their physical accomplishment, the leadership skills built by being part of a team, and the sheer joy in the game—not the mirage of where playing a sport might lead. Statistics show that a tiny fraction of high school athletes make the cut to play at the Division I level in college. An even more minute percentage goes on to play professionally.

At the boarding school level, admission officers value participation in sports at all levels. And, athletes are only considered elite if there are multiple and consistent indicators from a variety of coaches. I personally have seen many students who were considered superstars on their middle school football or basketball teams arrive at a boarding school only to discover that they will never make varsity in this more competitive environment. Undaunted, they discover a passion for squash, crew, or cross-country running. This is the beauty of a boarding school environment with so many exciting athletic opportunities at a variety of levels.

I hope that some day the systems that support youth sports can find a way to reverse the trend toward specializing too young. In the meantime, parents must rise to the challenge of helping children keep each sport in perspective as they move along the path to realizing their full potential.

Holly McGlennon Treat specializes in helping families interested in independent junior and secondary boarding schools. She can be reached at holly@thebertramgroup.com