Specialization vs Generalization…It’s Complicated

Stories, photos, and graphic by Ashtyn Hill Salazar

The bass on the gym speakers is loud. The student section is full and jumping so perfectly in sync it seems to rock the entire gymnasium. Parents fill the bleachers watching with anticipation to see their children take the court.

Trying unsuccessfully to blend in, one spectator sticks out among those next to him. He’s in all black except for a small embroidered logo on his shirt representing a local university.  In a moment he’ll put on a smile and talk to the family of the home team’s starting guard, but for now, he sits still, eyes darting back and forth as he watches the athletes warm up. He notes more than just the athletes’ movements. He’s looking at the calf muscles and how they pull upward on the leg if the athlete can touch their toes while stretching and the focus the athlete displays prior to the game. 

(Art by Ashtyn Hill Salazar)

The announcer’s voice over the loudspeaker pulls the spectator from his focus. By the end of the game, the home team has outperformed its opponent in nearly every aspect. He makes his way to the family with a smile, and as the buzzer hits zero he turns his attention to the athlete he’s scouting.

But there’s a plot twist. The spectator isn’t here to recruit a basketball player. He’s a football coach looking for his next great wide receiver. 

Why is a football coach scouting a basketball player? It has to do with a movement that has grown quite popular in the past few years in youth athletics. Specifically, the idea of  “generalization vs. specialization,” which refers to the different routes athletes take to develop their athletic abilities. Generalization means an athlete is involved in a variety of different sports throughout the year, while specialization defines an athlete who decides to place his or her whole focus on one specific sport and often participates in that sport year-round. 

The question is, which is better? Well, from the coach’s perspective.. it’s complicated. 

Youth sports have become a booming industry, especially in the U.S. According to the Aspen Institute, approximately 72.9% of children ages 6-12 and 69.9% of kids 13-17 participated in at least one sport in 2012. Nowadays, there are upwards of 76.1% of kids 6-12 and 73.4% of 13-17 year-olds who participate in sports. However, there have been more differences throughout the years than just the number of children playing. If you rewind just 10 years, most children were involved in a series of different sports, but in recent years it’s become far more common to find a child or teen that chooses to play just one sport year-round. 

There are multiple reasons an athlete would choose to specialize or generalize, but one of the major motivators is to draw the attention of college recruiters. It’s tough to say which is more successful, because again, it’s complicated. 

Take a moment to consider the pros and cons of generalization. The athlete participating in multiple teams and sports has an opportunity to work with a greater variety of people. It keeps a player in good shape as they remain in a highly physical environment in the offseason of the sport they primarily focus on. Plus, there’s far less chance of burnout. Dr. Karissa Niehoff found in a recent study that athletes playing multiple sports have a much lower risk of overuse injuries. 

Those who specialize put all their time into perfecting the necessary skills for their sport. Their brain isn’t cluttered with extra plays. They develop deep relationships with teammates and coaches and often the club teams on which specialists play provide great connections with coaches from the higher levels.  

Most coaches land somewhere in the middle of the generalization/specialization debate, but there are three key elements that played a factor in coaches’ reaction to the question: Personal experience, athletes’ experience and the individual being recruited. 

While specializing is becoming the norm, BYU women’s soccer head coach Jen Rockwood explained that a benefit of generalizing is the different teams, coaches and sports the athlete will have the opportunity to experience. 

“I was fortunate to grow up in a time where I was able to do different sports,” Rockwood said. “I did four sports in high school. Now I find at the level I’m coaching at these girls are specializing from a very early age, even as early as 10 or 11, which I don’t necessarily know (if that) is best for them.”

Jen Rockwood coaches against UVU. (BYU Photo)

Rockwood played soccer, basketball, softball and ran track, knowing exactly what it’s like to generalize. She feels each sport brought a variety of opportunities, social settings and friends, as the people, coaches and players she interacted with on one team were often different than those on another. 

“Sometimes you may be better in one sport than the other, and you kind of seem to have sides of your experience where maybe you’re the star in one’s heart and the other you’re more of a supporting role,” Rockwood said.

BYU track and field coach Kyle Grossarth emphasized that when it comes to recruiting, he purposefully looks for multi-sport athletes. 

“I like to find kids that have backgrounds where they’ve done different things and experienced different sports, been on different teams rather than just focusing on the one sport they’re going to do in college because to me that allows for a greater improvement,” Grossarth said.

Kyle Gorssarth embraces BYU track athletes after the NCAA West Prelims. (BYU Photo)

Grossarth argues that athletes who generalize haven’t necessarily had the time to dial in on one sport, meaning there’s a greater opportunity for coaches to develop the skills and attributes they hope to find in their own team members. In other words, not specializing at a young age helps coaches to specialize their athletes once they have joined the collegiate team. 

Consider a potter molding clay. If the master craftsman receives a piece of material that’s already been shaped into a vase but has almost hardened, it’s going to be difficult to make any serious additions or adjustments. On the contrary, when the piece of clay is put together with all the right ingredients but is still soft, the artist can shape the piece to near perfection.

BYU wide receivers coach Fesi Sitake finds this to be especially true when recruiting for football. He believes that athletes who generalize typically have a higher ceiling and potential for growth.

“I’m a huge advocate for kids playing multiple sports, becoming really good at certain skills, developing hand-eye coordination, learning how to be a great teammate, being ultra-competitive in various sports, and then when the time comes where they do specialize, though they might not be as polished, there is a much higher ceiling for that individual when they make that decision to start to specialize,” Sitake said.

Fesi Sitake runs a drill during BYU football practice. (BYU Photo)

Burst speed, strength, understanding angles and competitiveness are just a few of the skills Sitake lists as key components in a football player that can be found in other sports.

There are two sports Sitake finds himself frequently watching in order to find talent for the team. When it comes to the men in the trenches — offensive and defensive linemen — wrestling can often be a telltale sign of talent. 

“There have been a lot of athletes who I’ve signed off on or who have really increased their stock because I’ve seen them wrestle,” Sitake said. “I think any other sports that just have (opportunities) where you’re able to test footwork, coordination and athleticism is a huge positive.”

On the offensive side of the ball, Fesi said he will always watch a dual sport basketball/football athlete when recruiting wide receivers. He notes he’s rarely missed on a recruit that is a good basketball player, and if they don’t pan out it’s typically due to things off the field rather than a lack of talent.

“I think there’s an element of understanding space, understanding angles, how to attack people and how to attack leverage,” Sitake said of basketball. “It’s so fast-paced and requires those skills tests those things more than any other sports.”

Clearly there’s no shortage of benefits when it comes to generalization, but Grossarth also acknowledged the irony that once athletes reach the collegiate level he encourages them to choose one sport and stick with it. 

For most, participating in a sport at the collegiate level is like having a full-time job due to the intensive hours required. Once in college, it’s often better for the athlete’s mental health alone to avoid the stress of multiple sports and simply stick to one. 

Nevertheless, sports as a full-time “job” is becoming increasingly common among younger athletes. Often, coaches who are recruiting athletes for sports like soccer, volleyball and basketball are finding the young talent on club teams. Even if parents are supportive of generalization, club coaches pressure athletes to commit to their teams full-time. Club sports offer athletes access to the best coaches, trainers and the best competition.

“As soccer continues to grow in our state and in the country, it is getting more specialized again,” Rockwood said. “I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but you’re seeing competition at nine and 10 years old. I think if someone does want to go on to play at the collegiate or Division-I level and then also potentially go on to play professionally, there probably is a need for specialization at a very early age.” 

Like many things in life, there are a lot of ways to be successful. Rockwood pointed out that Ashley Hatch — a BYU soccer alumna and current member of the National Women’s Soccer League — chose to generalize and play multiple sports. Rockwood noticed that a lot of Hatch’s talent came from intensive work and personal dedication on her own time.  

Ashley Hatch competing with the NWSL’s Washington Spirit. (Photo courtesy of Ashley Hatch)

“She didn’t compete super competitively on a team but then realized she had to do a lot of extra work on her own, and I think in the long run that’s really propelled her and developed her work and training habits that have allowed her to be one of the best in the country right now,” Rockwood said of Hatch.

Clearly every person will handle situations differently. This is why it’s important for coaches to recruit with more than just athletic ability in mind. Sitake says when looking at a potential addition to the team he focuses on three major aspects: Physical, social and academic. While physical aspects are far easier to identify, there are a list of questions that assist in analyzing the social and academic side of things: What kind of sibling are they if they have siblings? What kind of son are they to their parents? Do they have a girlfriend? Who is their circle of friends and how are those kids?

Knowing what you’re getting is crucial when building an athletic program. Every aspect of an athlete is observed and analyzed to assure they will be a valuable asset to the team. While Fesi knows recruiting goes much deeper than what’s seen on the surface, athletic ability is clearly what catches a recruiter’s eye each time. 

Current BYU linebacker Max Tooley also threw javelin for the Cougars last season. (Ashtyn Hill Salazar)

Intense athleticism has been and will be a trait people identify quickly and easily. Whether one should use that athletic talent and specialize from a young age or continue to develop general skills through a variety of sports is something that is far less clear. As one can gather from hearing the opinions of just three coaches, there is no right or wrong answer. 

When the college recruiter from the beginning of our story walked into the gymnasium, he walked in knowing he would be observing a basketball game. What he didn’t know is if in the coming months that same player from the court would be making players for him on the football field. There are certainly pros and cons to both ideas of generalization and specialization, but when it comes down to it, the athlete needs to make their own decision.

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