At a Crossroads: The Choice of Generalization and Specialization
Story and Graphics by Haleigh Weaver
“Take your mark!” the starter yelled as the 12-year-old boys anxiously climbed up the starting blocks.
This swim meet was not an ordinary meet — this was the OMPA meet, one of the largest recreational swim meets in the country. It was being held for the 65th time in the stands of Campolindo High School, a Californian Division-III school nestled in the yellowish-green Oakland Hills. Life there is unusually calm due to the lack of freeway exits leading to the town, but OMPA always brings a different energy.
Adoring fans sardined into the bleachers to cheer on their favorite local swimmers. You could sense a certain apprehension in every swimmer’s body – except for J.T. Goett.
“Before the race, I was nervous, but as I stepped onto the blocks, I knew my preparation would pay off,” Goett said.
Joseph Talmage Goett, known as J.T. to everyone close to him, was becoming a household name around the Bay Area swim community, and for good reason: he was breaking the pool record at every pool he swam.
The Swimmers left the blocks, and in lane five, you could see Goett in his purple speedo. His freestyle stroke looked effortless, with the crowd chanting “J.T. the Jet Goett!” as he swam. He touched the wall and looked back to the scoreboard, which showed he had just obliterated an eighteen-year record. Later, he broke his own record set earlier that day and added a breaststroke record to his list of awards. He mounted the medal podium while onlookers stood in awe.
Shortly after Goett and his family left the swim meet, they received a text message from another swim mom.
“Congrats to J.T.! Are you guys headed to O.A. (the local year-round swim club) soon? I would not wait too long to go year-round. Almost all the swimmers we know at the elite level always swam year-round from a very young age.”
As the Goetts read the text, panic replaced the joy they felt only moments earlier.
J.T. found himself at a crossroads. Should he drop his other sports of interest and commit to swimming full-time like many other OMPA champions before him?
It’s ingrained in everyone that lives in that small town that to be great, you need to specialize. In order to succeed, he would need to give up the other sports he loved to play.
Or would he?
Many young adults find themselves at similar crossroads as J.T. They feel the pressure from the media, their communities and family that to succeed, you must specialize. It’s what the best of the best do, right? Michael Phelps. Serena Williams. Tiger Woods.
But long forgotten are multi-sport athletes like Michael Jordan, Roger Federer and Jackie Robinson, who hold just as many accolades as the champions who specialized. The answer may not be as simple as, “to be great, you must specialize in one particular sport.”
There has to be more to it.
The generalization and specialization debate is complex. Coaches recruit based on their preferences and what they have seen that works from their own experiences.
“Great swimmers come in all shapes, sizes and backgrounds, but in general, I tend to prefer an athlete that has grown up playing multiple sports versus just having swum,” said David Durden, head coach of the Cal Swim team for the past 16 years and head of the U.S. Olympic Team.
The Cal Bears have won five national championships under Durden, who has become an elite recruiter. He built a team of future Olympic gold medalists at Cal such as Nathan Adrian, Ryan Murphy and Josh Prenot.
Durden has found that as swimmers reach the level of collegiate swimming, coaches generally don’t change significant things about how the swimmers swim. It’s mostly fine-tuning minute details in their strokes. He believes that swimmers with a “wide range of athletic knowledge and experience” have a better sense of proprioception, your body’s ability to sense movement, action and location, making it easier for their coaching staff to increase the quality of their swimmers.
Durden believes when to specialize is an individual decision. To be successful at a collegiate level and beyond, an athlete must have a passion and love for the sport at the right time and love the process of competing. If thoughtful consideration isn’t taken into account during this major decision, athletes who decide to specialize at the wrong time can often be met with burnout and overuse injuries.
Additionally, he has found that swimmers who find that joy at a younger age sometimes find it harder to maintain that joy and passion for longer amounts of time. In contrast, the best athletes he has recruited are the ones who are invested in the process and want to soak up as much information and guidance as possible.
His coaching philosophy is unique. If college is the goal, the moment of specialization will be a natural one. However, Durden believes that if an athlete has “access to good coaching, plenty of high-level competition, good facilities, is continuing to improve, and most importantly enjoying it,” there should be no rush to specialize.
Doctors can help athletes decide on a course of action. Many doctors, including Derek S. Weaver, believe that early specialization leads to burnout, mental health issues and overuse injuries. Dr. Weaver has studied the topic of generalization vs. specialization for decades and found that in most cases, early specialization leads to burnout and does not benefit most athletes.
Like Durden, Weaver believes that a child must have a passion for the sport and motivation to specialize and that ambition must supersede the desire of parents, coaches and peers. If a child does not love the sport independently, a parent should not push them to specialize.
As a young doctor, he observed the adverse effects of early specialization firsthand. He was introduced to a four-year-old patient, a youth wrestling superstar, who found his passion early and easily won every match he was in. When he reached high school, he was a preseason favorite to claim a state championship, but fell short during his first two years of high school, leading to what he considered a major failure. Devastation and deep depression set in, which worried Weaver as a doctor and a friend to the family.
In his junior year, the hard work finally paid off, and he was crowned a state champion. But the mental toll crushed him. The young man quit the sport. He lied to the wrestling community telling everyone that he had a career-ending injury. He didn’t have a physical injury, but mentally he was crippled. Once 132 pounds, the superstar wrestler ballooned to almost 300 pounds. His life was in shambles by the mental effects of specializing so early in the sport of wrestling.
Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time with 28 medals, is the epitome of a successful young specialist. Most Olympians are specialists and elite in their sports, but Weaver suspects that we as fans don’t realize that even when they win, they have a higher risk of suicide. The Olympics have become the apex of elite athletes’ careers, and when it is over, they have nothing left. In Phelps’ case, he received a DUI at age 19, was caught smoking marijuana, and was arrested for drunk driving.
Weaver believes that the best time to avoid the negative effects of specialization is after a child has gone through puberty, which is around eleven for girls and twelve for boys. After puberty, athletes must relearn the sport that once came naturally to them with a new body. Both boys and girls will have difficulties with this new body but “women, in particular, have to worry about this because their whole body changes”, while men “have to worry about a change in muscle mass and height, with a huge change in mechanics.”
Once they have the chance to grow into their bodies, athletes can begin to tell what their strengths are in different sports, ultimately helping with burnout and injury.
While the injury is less common overall in low-impact sports such as swimming, shoulder injuries are prevalent. According to Weaver, the earlier an athlete specializes, you train your body to move in a certain way, and as a result neglecting all kinds of other muscle groups and their development leaving the athlete susceptible to injury.
Parents have become one of the leading causes of early specialization in their children.
Most want their children to succeed, and as their children excel at a particular sport, they begin overly committing to that sport. Parents can invest hundreds and thousands of dollars in private training, elite teams, and gear to help their child be the best and are often disappointed in the end result.
However, only seven percent of kids will have the opportunity to play college sports and of that, only about two percent of that percentage play Division-I sports.
The problem lies in that some parents don’t have the necessary resources to make such a crucial decision in their children’s lives.
For Andrew and Stephanie Goett, the goal is different. They live by the mantra that they want to have well-rounded kids and allow them to try different sports that they love.
But coaches and year-round swimmers have pressured the family to cross over to the world of specialization. Some have even said that if they don’t put their son in year-round swimming he will never swim in college.
The Goetts feel lucky to have significant resources from coaches to doctors who have helped them decide to keep their son in recreational swimming as he gets better and “has fun while doing it.” Eventually, they will switch to year-round swimming, but only when they all feel right about it and, most importantly, when their son feels right about it.
Coaches, doctors and parents dominate this specific debate, but children must stand at the forefront of the issue. It is a topic that directly affects a child and their future, yet they give the least amount of input on the topic.
For J.T. Goett, the “ultimate goal is making it to the Olympics,” and he hopes to make that dream a reality.
So far, J.T. has ignored the pressure to specialize in swimming and instead focuses on other sports, strengthening other muscle groups and working on his mental health. He acknowledges that year-round swimming offers “amazing opportunities” but has done his research and is confident that the day will come when specialization will be necessary.
A lot has changed since the Goett’s received that text. J.T. has found himself on the other side of the crossroad, realizing, with the help of coaches and friends, that generalization is the best route for him.
If only others were as fortunate.