Do you have to specialize in a sport to get a scholarship?

child baseball player representing specializing in a sport to get a scholarshipShould you play more than one sport in high school if you want to play at the college level? Focusing on a single sport would seem to provide players with the ability to develop advanced skills to stand-out from the competition. However, there are plenty of people out there arguing that playing multiple sports provides athletes with significant benefits, including in the recruiting arena.

Yet single sports seems to be the norm-so what’s the deal?

After doing a some reading on why players don’t play multiple sports, I’ve discovered the following:

  • It’s the players and families fault because they are looking for any possible advantage in capturing an athletic scholarship.
  • It’s the high school coaches fault because since they increasingly only coach one sport and aren’t interested in sharing athletes.
  • No matter what, it’s not the college coaches’ fault because they think multi-sport athletes are better developed, more competitive, etc. They just love multi-sport athletes, just check out Urban Meyer’s recruiting board.

The reality is that there is plenty of blame to go around.

Let’s start at the beginning. There really isn’t any data that says that you are more or less likely to be recruited if you play more than one sport. There seems to be reliable data that athletes in multiple sports are less likely to suffer injuries and burn-out. But that’s not the same thing as saying they are more likely to be recruited.

Healthier and happier-yes.

Playing at the college level-no one knows.

Join other parents in the College Recruiting Parent Zone

Football isn’t the only sport out there

The next thing you need to realize is how much of the “evidence” that is presented is based on football. This isn’t just the case of the sport being the major spectator sport for college and the one with the most scholarships. Football, unlike virtually all the other sports, is pretty much limited to the high school season.

Sure, there are an increasing number of 7 on 7 leagues, special work-out programs, and summer combines. But there really isn’t another football season outside of high school.

So of course, recruiters are going to expect high school football players to be playing in other sports during their off-season because there aren’t any other options! (Well, except for other non-academic extra-curricular activities but everyone knows those simply don’t count.)

What do coaches in other sports want?

The multi-sport question is really an issue for all of those whose primary sport is not football. Start quoting some college soccer and swim coaches talking about how much they appreciate multi-sport athletes and you’ll get more people’s attention.

As for college coaches being blameless–not hardly. Once you’re out of the realm of football where high school games are scheduled so as not to conflict with college games which don’t conflict with professional games, coaches recruit out of season.

When else do they have the chance to see athletes play?

How many college coaches actually attend high school sporting events? Why take time from their teams during season when they can recruit players during their off-season? Of course, that means that players have to participate in these non-high school season events. But, remember, it’s not the college coaches’ fault.

In case you haven’t figured it out, I’m skeptical about the claims that non-football college coaches simply can’t get enough of multi-sport athletes. I’m not saying that I think playing a single sport is the preferred option. Rather, I do understand why parents and players choose that route.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that if the justification for specialization is a college scholarship, then it’s likely to be wasted effort. It’s simply a matter of numbers–there just aren’t that many athletic scholarships.

Where to go to learn more

The following is a review of some of the articles that deal with the issue.

If you only read one article, read Doug Robinson’s The era (and myth) of the one-sport prep athlete. He does a good job of showing how football players aren’t in the same situation as other athletes. He also points out the role of increasing larger high schools:

Visit any school, especially the bigger ones, and you’ll find specialization. For instance, Jordan High reports that only three of its boys basketball players and 14 of its football players played another sport. Alta High officials estimate that only 20-25 percent of its athletes play multiple sports.

In Can high school athletes succeed after playing multiple sports?, Eric Sondheimer provides an example of how things should work for multi-sport athletes and acknowledges the pressure to focus on a single sport. The important take-away from his column:

But there’s little research indicating whether it’s a positive or negative to play multiple sports in the teenage years.

That’s the major problem, no one can tell you if specializing will help an athletes chances of making it to the next level.

Health advantages in not specializing

What the research does show is that it increases your chances of injury. A study presented at the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons found that high school athletes who specialized earlier had higher rates of sports related injuries than college and professional athletes who had specialized later.

Playing one sport year-round isn’t smart, even for kids who want to go pro is an interesting read because it basically moves the focus to “early” specialization. While not the point of the article, what I took away from it is that we’ve given up at the high school level and are just trying to stop the process for those under age 13.

Who really wants a multisport athlete?

Dave Weidig’s article Why have 3-sport athletes been disappearing? is worth reading just for the non-football examples. If college coaches really want more multi-sport players, they need to have a response for the following:

Early starts for young athletes often decide which direction they’ll go.

“They start travel baseball in grade school; 41 of the 45 kids in our (state championship) baseball program played travel baseball,” Petty said. “Nowadays, you can’t put in the time to be a star in all three sports. You play 22 basketball games and have 70 practices. You play 70 AAU games and practice maybe 20 times.”

These older articles Are You Better Off Playing One or More Sports? and Recruiters, coaches often conflicted about multisport athletes suggest that not all college coaches are looking for multi-sport athletes. After reading these, I couldn’t help but feel that the current lamenting of the loss of the multi-sport athlete has a lot to do with nostalgia than any attempt to change the situation.

John O’Sullivan of Changing the Game Project in Is it Wise to Specialize? presents the pressure to specialize as one of things that’s wrong with youth sports. Be sure to take a look at the comments.

Wondering about my opinion? I think high school sports have lost their way. Why is it that once you graduate from high school, you can play sports for fun whether it’s intramurals in colleges or adult leagues? But apparently the only possible reason you can be playing a sport in high school is so that you can get a college scholarship.


4 thoughts on “Do you have to specialize in a sport to get a scholarship?”

  1. High school sports have absolutely lost their way – as have many of the youth leagues. Your last paragraph is great! Even among elementary aged students, participation in an in-house, parks department, or YMCA type league is considered inferior – as if playing sports just to have fun and hang out with friends is the wrong reason. Kids are in a tough spot with their friends socially, and parents have adopted a Keeping Up With the Joneses mentality. Top down changes don’t make sense financially to the people who run the leagues, and bottom up changes have been slow to progress. Any change takes many voices; thanks for adding yours!

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