NCAA Shows Athletes Regret Specialization

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Ten years. That’s about the outer limit of a human being’s ability to single-mindedly pursue major projects or goals. At least, that’s my guesstimate/conclusion based on my very non-scienticifc, anecdotal “survey” of my own life and those of many other athletes.

Olympians and Paralympians live their lives in 4-year “intervals” so many are forced by the nature of their sport goals to stretch that to twelve years. Athletes who can maintain their careers beyond that are outliers or in exceptional circumstances that ALLOW them to live a life that revolves around the sleep-eat-train-eat-sleep-repeat rhythm of an elite athlete’s life. Most everyone else needs to rearrange life priorities every decade. Or so it seems.

Is that maybe why the NCAA is reporting that “many athletes” in their most recent survey “regret specialization”?

A couple of years ago two Stanford swimmers came to speak at a coaching conference I attended. They had come to Stanford Swimming from two very different paths. One had been a year-round swimmer, highly specialized for the vast majority of her life. The other said that she felt lucky that she had been allowed to be a multi-sport athlete in high school because once she arrived on The Farm she had much more room to grow. The successes were easier to come by, relatively speaking. She said she definitely seemed to have more fun than her teammates who had specialized early and then struggled in college to peak beyond their previous best performances.

The question, as I’ve put it to the many parents and swimmers who ask me for advice about specialization is: when do you want to peak? My guess is that the athletes who regret early specialization are realizing, belatedly, how hard it is to maintain the MENTAL FOCUS it takes to be an elite athlete. And they are probably in the position of having to give up a scholarship or continue further into burn-out. A terrible choice to have to ask a young adult to make.

Food for thought if you have kids or you have friends with kids or you work in the youth sports industry.

(The full report from the NCAA is here.)

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