An age-old debate in youth athletics is inching its way more and more to the forefront with high school athletes leaving school altogether to play professionally and collegiate players finally being able to make money off their own brand, image and likeness.
With amateur athletics being monetized more and more, a prevalent question is what the benefits to specializing in just one sport are? Take Jalen Lewis, a California basketball star who just turned 16, for example. Last week the 6-feet-10 phenom became the youngest player in the country to sign a professional contract when he inked a deal with the Overtime Elite pro league.
Lewis will make an annual salary north of $100,000 as part of a multi-year deal that is believed to be worth more than $1 million in total, but not only will he forego his final two years of high school, he will also be opting out of college altogether. In that extreme example, his decision, though questionable, may end up paying off as he will get the chance to compete against pros, perfect his craft, set himself up for a potential NBA career when he is draft eligible in 2024 and make a lot of cash in the process.
If he hadn’t specialized in basketball at a young age, would Lewis be on the same trajectory he is now? Will the potential to earn money sooner make young athletes believe they need to focus on just one sport earlier to be the best they can be?
For the average young athlete, even those who show immense potential in one sport from a young age, competing in multiple sports still has a lot of benefits. It can take time for athletes to discover what their best sport is, and there are all sorts of cases of professional athletes who believed they were better in a different sport at one time.
Retired West Marion football coach Brad Duncan said he’s a big believer in multi-sport athletes, and for that matter, so are college coaches.
“Every college coach that comes through to look at our football guys, they would always inquire, ‘What other sports do they play?’ They want you to be a multiple-sport athlete,” he said. “They want to see you compete in something that maybe isn’t your specialty. It gives a good indication of what kind of kid someone is. He’s a football player, but how does he respond in basketball? How does he respond in baseball? They look for those sorts of things.”
But not every sport is the same. As a self-proclaimed “basketball lifer,” East Marion head basketball coach Calvin Brown said if you’re not an elite athlete, specialization can become a requirement at some point in your development as a basketball player.
“The debate about specialization versus multiple-sport participation, I think, is case-by-case. Each athlete is wired differently and uniquely, and I think specialization is the route some athletes need to take,” he said. “Multi-sport participation benefits more kids in more ways, but speaking as a basketball person, every day you’re not playing basketball when somebody else is, they’re getting better than you. If you’re not a better athlete than them, you can’t make up for that lost time.”
The championship-winning coach added that of the major team sports, basketball is the easiest game to play but the hardest to be good at.
“People in a wheelchair play basketball, there’s league for elders — anybody can play it — but it’s the hardest one to be good at. One because of the skills involved — the fusion of athleticism, skill and IQ — and also because of the exclusive nature of it,” Brown said. “The average junior college is only going to have 12 scholarships, or maybe seven or eight that you’re splitting between 12 or 13 on a basketball team.”
Columbia head baseball coach Kyle Lindsey, who also coached baseball at the collegiate level, said he loves for athletes to play as many sports as possible. For him, it’s not just about the physical side of it, but it’s also about exposing student athletes to different coaching staffs who approach their respective sports in different ways, teaching athletes a lot of life lessons along the way.
“You get to face adversity in a lot of different ways. Different coaches get to push you. You’re not with just one coach all year long,” he said. “There may be something in baseball that got one of the football guys to click, and there may be something in football that got one of the baseball players to click. Different coaches push different buttons on different players to find a way to get the most out of them.”
Lindsey added something Columbia High School does well is recognizing which sport is an athlete’s strongest and allowing them the leeway to spend a little bit more time focusing on that sport without quitting the other.
One of the primary benefits, though, to playing multiple sports throughout the year is training different muscle groups while give others the rest they need and teaching the body different movements. Cross-training, for example, in both basketball and football will increase lateral movement and agility, while playing baseball will strengthen an athlete's core.
“Certain sports require certain movements, and a lot of times they’re different movements,” Duncan said. “A football movement is going to be different than a baseball movement. Whatever sport it is, it’s going to require a little bit different muscle action than just one sport. That makes you a better athlete because it helps you respond to different situations.”
There’s also the financial side of specializing for parents. Playing year-round in one sport is becoming more and more expensive by the year. Parents of travel baseball and softball players have to pay thousands of dollars, as do parents of basketball players who participate in leagues such as AAU. The payoff could be a scholarship, possibly even a professional career, and there are also the cherished memories that are made. But the reality is a lot of those memories are for the parents. As someone who played a lot of travel baseball growing up, I don’t remember 99% of the games I played.
One Marion County example of the positive side of specialization is Slade Wilks, the former Columbia Academy superstar who is currently playing baseball at Southern Miss. Wilks was a multi-sport athlete through his freshman year, and he was really good at both football and basketball.
However, he sustained several knee injuries, and his future was clearly on the baseball diamond. So he made the rational decision to focus solely on baseball, and he became an Under Armour and Perfect Game All-American as one of the best players in the entire country.
Brown advises parents to let their children participate in everything their kid is remotely interested in, but as they participate in everything, they need to pay attention to which sport their talents are more suited for.
“There may come a time when your talent tells you to focus on one, maybe two areas,” he said. “Or maybe your talent tells you that you can do it all. But that is not every kid. I think sometimes we hurt kids by assuming they are.”