In the 2018 Major League Baseball (MLB) draft, the Oakland Athletics selected Kyler Murray 9th overall. The son of Kevin Murray, who played both professional football and baseball, Kyler followed in his father’s footsteps, excelling as the starting quarterback on the University of Oklahoma college football team and a starting outfielder on their baseball team. After being drafted, Murray was to play one last season on the gridiron before reporting to the Athletics’ spring training. However, this agreement happened before Murray had an electrifying 2018 football season, eclipsing 4,000 passing yards and winning the Heisman Trophy, an award given to the best player in college football. Following his outstanding season, Murray declared for the National Football League’s (NFL) draft in April. It appears Murray will be making a choice between which sport to play professionally, instead of opting to play both. This decision is one that the incredibly talented Murray has the luxury of making so late into his athletic career. Today though, that same decision has become one that shapes the careers of so many athletes from a young age.
The evolution of youth sports has become contradictory to the American ideal that praises the “complete athlete,” someone who has multiple athletic pursuits that work in harmony. This blueprint encourages the development of season-specific skills, and acknowledges the utility they could present in other sports. The problem is, from very early on, kids are taught to put their eggs into one basket. “I’ve felt pressure from every coach that I’ve had to focus primarily on that given sport,” says Dash Pederson (12), a three-sport athlete at Franklin. In the modern, ultra-competitive amateur athletics scene, full time commitment is required. Travel teams now allow seven and eight year olds to get free backpacks and sweatshirts, flying across the country to compete in packed gyms. Olympians have become as young as 13 years old. Given no alternative, coaches and parents have begun to specialize young athletes into singular sports, instead of giving them time to mature and make the choice on their own. The pressure to make an impetuous choice early on is negatively affecting the athletic futures of kids nationwide.
Burnout is a combination of physical and mental exhaustion in an overworked athlete that leads them to abandon a previously enjoyable activity. It can be particularly damaging to teenagers, prompting many to drop a sport altogether and leading to poor exercise habits later in life. While the term was initially used to describe professional athletes, it has become increasingly common for kids as young as nine or ten years old to be diagnosed with the “overtraining syndrome.” This can be directly attributed to specialized, intense training early in life. A 2014 study by the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine found that, through intensive training for a singular sport, adolescent athletes are far more likely to quit sports entirely. And while the psychological impact of sports specialization is taxing, the physical impact is far more dangerous. Specialized athletes are 1.5 times more likely to suffer injury compared to their multi-sport counterparts, according to the US National Library of Medicine. These injuries are almost always overuse injuries, which can sideline a previously healthy athlete for months. Athletes who play multiple sports, although taking on a heavier workload, balance it out by working different muscle groups, reducing compounding physical stress.
Ironically, early sports specialization is more damaging than helpful. There is no evidence to suggest that kids who devote their middle school years to a single sport will have better athletic careers than those who begin playing at fourteen. Sports that are traditionally mastered after physical maturation do not require specific training until, unsurprisingly, after physical maturation. Regardless of how or when they start, only one percent of all athletes will ever achieve an elite level. The way to create more of these elite athletes is not to start them earlier, but give them time to find an activity they enjoy. Kyler Murray isn’t an anomaly from the assumption that you have to make a choice; he is an example for all coaches, parents, and athletes to take note of. If you give an athlete the opportunity to make a decision on their own, they might exceed all expectations.