View From The Dugout

A College Coach's Perspective

The Age of the Specialist

Whatever happened to the multi-sport high school athlete?

It's camp season and a few weeks ago my colleague and I conducted our annual summer soccer academy, an overnight camp for high-school aged boys. Over the past few years our registrations have soared and not only did we sell the camp out but had a lengthy waiting list of youngsters hopeful of a chance of gaining admittance. A cursory check of other camps run by college coaches around the country reports a similar situation. Indeed, during our camp week there were, in addition to our 130 boys, over 100 girls at a soccer camp and another 100 female lacrosse players sharing the fields and dorms.


Why is the sports camp business booming? Is it because sports across the board are so popular? Is it because kids like to be away from home to meet new friends? Could it be the excitement of being on a college campus? Maybe it's the ability have to fun and learn new skills? While all of those may have been perfectly legitimate considerations for attending camps in the past they are often secondary or even tertiary for many of today's youngsters and their families.

This is the age of the specialist. We live in a time where the ideal of being a multi-sport athlete is only valued up until a certain age, often somewhere between twelve and fourteen. Examples of the kid who played high school soccer or football in the fall, followed by basketball in the winter and baseball or track in the spring are becoming harder to find.

The advent of high-level club sports has made it desirable to play a single sport year-round rather than multiple seasonal sports. In the case of soccer most high schools play during the fall and at the conclusion of the season the players will begin to train and play with their club teams for the rest of the year. While many do try to play a second high school sport during the winter or second semester they are often pressured by their club coaches to practice, travel and play for the club team and in most instances the club wins out.

At the root of the decision to specialize is often the desire to play with and against players at the highest levels, to represent the most well-known club teams at the most prestigious (i.e. most heavily attended by college coaches) tournaments and showcases. Families of young players have often charted out their intended club, tournament and camp choices prior to their first day of attending high school. Unlike in other countries where the professional level is the brass ring for young athletes, the mythical "next level" for our kids is to play in college, preferably supported by some sort of athletic scholarship.

With college as the intended goal for many youngsters, clubs have become highly-specialized in helping players be "seen" and their recruitment efforts will often trumpet their past successes in "placing" players in colleges. This has led to the evolution of some perennially successful, high-prestige "superclubs' in different parts of the country who often dominate on a regional and even national level. Not every club has that type of profile and not every athlete has the talent or aspiration to be part of one. However, there has been a noticeable trickle-down effect to smaller and less prestigious club teams. A colleague of mine who coaches girl's soccer in a modest club in a small Midwestern town, related a story of facing a barrage of criticism from some parents over the amount of playing time their daughters were getting. They were not necessarily upset because they felt their daughters were better players than the other girls on the team but they were deeply concerned that their daughters were not getting sufficient opportunity to be "seen" by college coaches.
The fact that these particular girls were not college-caliber players is less to the point than the almost obsessive need to be well-positioned in order to attain an incredibly elusive scholarship.

A few years ago the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) estimated that only about two percent of Division 1 athletes received scholarships. It would seem logical that given a 98 percent chance of not getting a scholarship to a Division 1 school, kids and families could relax, avoid the pressure to specialize and just play multiple sports for the fun of it and in reality, there are still some high school athletes who do just that. The rising cost of education and the perception that there's free money out there for talented, well-positioned, specialist athletes continues to motivate many to take their chances of making it into that small two percent and hence the willingness to invest great amounts of time and money persists.

Part of that investment often involves camps like ours because they offer a unique three to five day opportunity to be watched closely by college coaches who can evaluate them and give them first-hand feedback on their potential as college players. My camp colleague and I accept that our program is part of the specialization process and that evaluation is mutually beneficial for us and the kids and if we happen to find a hidden gem in the group so much the better. We have a lot of fun doing it and for several years have measured our success by the smiling faces and tired legs of the campers. This year for the first time we received a complaint. After the first hour of the first day of camp we received a phone call and email from a parent complaining that, in spite of that fact that over the course of the camp every coach gets to work with every camper, their seventeen year old son was not placed in a group where he felt he was going to be seen enough by a specific member of the coaching staff!
How he managed to call home so quickly surprised us but it proved that even in the world of specialization you can't please everyone, especially if they have a cell phone handy.

Brian Tompkins is the Head Coach of Men's Soccer at Yale University in New Haven, CT.

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