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Should My Kid Specialize? Take a Cue from the 2018 NFL Draft

What the stats from this year's draft suggest

Published on: May 01, 2018

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When the Seattle Seahawks selected Shaquem Griffin in the fourth round of the recent NFL Draft, it was a feel-great story.

The speedy linebacker out of the University of Central Florida was reunited with his twin brother, Shaquill, already a standout cornerback on the team’s “Legion of Boom.” And Shaquem, who does not have a left hand, continued to prove that he would not let a disability stop him from achieving greatness.

But for youth-sports purists who have watched with sadness and sometimes horror as specialization has taken over the development of athletics with kids in America, the Griffin saga wasn’t the only heartwarming narrative emerging from the draft.

According to research by the analytics website Tracking Football, 29 of the 32 players selected in the first round of the 2018 draft, or 90.6 percent, played more than one sport in high school. 

Top pick Baker Mayfield’s baseball skills helped him become a mobile, Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback for the University of Oklahoma. San Francisco 49ers top pick Mike McGlinchey parlayed his agility at lacrosse into a standout career as an offensive lineman at Notre Dame. And Sam Darnold, the no. 3 overall selection from the University of Southern California, will continue to use the field-vision skills he honed as a prep basketball star to lead the New York Jets from the quarterback position.

The message is clear: While parents yearning for professional glory through their children continue to push their kids into year-round focus on a single sport, the evidence is piling up that branching out is the way to go.

Single-sport specialists at the high school level fall victim to lower-extremity injuries at a much higher rate than those who play multiple sports.

Not mention, specializing can lead to significant injury risk.

A study by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health recently found that single-sport specialists at the high school level fall victim to lower-extremity injuries at a much higher rate (46 percent) than those who play multiple sports (24 percent). 

In baseball, the all-too-common elbow reconstruction procedure for pitchers known as “Tommy John surgery” has already claimed so many victims at the high school level and even in athletes in their early teens that Major League legend John Smoltz felt compelled to rail against specialization in his Hall of Fame induction speech in 2015

“I want to encourage the families and parents that are out there to understand that this is not normal to have a surgery at 14 and 15 years old, that you have time, that baseball's not a year-round sport, that you have an opportunity to be athletic and play other sports,” said Smoltz. “Don't let the institutions that are out there running before you guaranteeing scholarship dollars and signing bonuses [tell you] that this is the way.”

If the results of this year’s NFL Draft are any indication, Smoltz and concerned parents should be smiling. Specialization might very well be on the way out and well-rounded athleticism could be making a long-awaited comeback.

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