It’s a reality that young athletes grapple with every day.
As players begin to stand out from their peers in a certain sport, travel teams and development coaches encourage them to pick that sport, dropping the rest of their athletic interests to focus on one passion.
But that specialization isn’t always in the athlete’s best interest. And that’s a battle that Michigan’s director of hockey operations, Topher Scott, has been fighting throughout his post-playing career. Through his “The Hockey Think Tank” podcast and social media, he uses his platform to educate parents and coaches on the consequences of specializing too early.
“It’s different for different people,” Scott said Monday. “But at the end of the day, youth sports as a whole has become a business and so by having kids play the same sport year round, that’s good for business for those people who are running those sports.”
Plenty of the Michigan hockey team’s skaters have embodied this, playing multiple sports growing up. In addition to hockey, sophomore forward Mackie Samoskevich played golf; sophomore forward Dylan Duke played baseball and lacrosse; freshmen Adam and Luca Fantilli played lacrosse and even snowboarded.
That wide net of sports is not an anomaly. According to a study of 303 college athletes by Dr. Hasani Swindell — a specialist in orthopedic surgery and sports medicine at Columbia — 94.7% of those respondents played multiple organized sports growing up, and 45% played another sport until at least the age of 16.
The benefits of a diverse sports background illustrate the reasoning behind those numbers. Involvement in multiple sports builds a better athletic repertoire — whether that’s from developing motor skills, learning new strategies or preventing injuries and burnout. It also works different muscle groups, building all-around strength and coordination instead of targeting certain areas used in one specific sport.
Of course, athletes eventually need to pick a sport if they’re going to play in college. At some point, a hockey player has to decide that hockey is their foremost passion, the single sport they want to take to the next level.
But in many cases there’s no need to rush the process. Whereas some travel teams and competitive programs might encourage young skaters to put all their athletic eggs into one basket, in reality there’s no all-encompassing track on the timeline of sport specialization.
“It depends on physical maturation, mental maturation, emotional maturation, when you want to really kind of zone in on one (sport) and I think that’s kind of different for everybody,” Scott said. “But I would say definitely not until you’re certainly a teenager — mid-teens — is when you should at least look at starting to specialize. Before that, definitely play multiple sports.”
But pressures to pick a sport have mounted in recent years. Even Michigan’s coaching staff is feeling the effect.
“So I have a seven year old and (we’re) going through this now — I think you absolutely should play multiple sports,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said Oct. 25. “… He goes and plays basketball or soccer and they’re like ‘Hey, you can play on the club team at seven and it’s four nights a week.’ So like at those early ages, it’s probably an organizational thing and then you miss out if you’re a parent. So it’s tough.
“Even at seven (years old), you (almost) have to pick a sport and then everything else is rec league.”
But that doesn’t have to be the case. And that’s something Scott wants to teach others.
“There’s three pretty big stakeholders in all of youth sports,” Scott said Monday. “There’s the players, there’s the parents, and there’s the coaches. And if you can educate all three of those on — I don’t want to say the right way to do things — but a certain way of doing things that we feel helps the kids develop into better players and better people, that’s what we’re trying to do.”
By spreading research about sport specialization, Scott hopes that the landscape of youth sports can improve. Through focusing on overall development and growth across multiple sports, young athletes can grow into better all-around competitors.
Ultimately, those multi-sport athletes could end up joining the D-I ranks — just like many of Michigan’s current players did.