Home Baseball Content School Size, Geography, and Early Sports Specialization

School Size, Geography, and Early Sports Specialization

Written on September 10, 2014 at 9:19 pm, by Eric Cressey

I write a lot about my distaste for early sports specialization here on the blog, and I like to think I've examined it from a number of different angles. That said, I usually focus on the decision of an athlete and his/her parents in this context, but I rarely discuss the situational factors that may govern these decisions. Two perspectives to which I haven't paid much attention are the significant impacts that school size and geography have on young athletes' likelihood of specialization.  This is something I've been pondering more and more as we open the new Cressey Sports Performance in Jupiter, FL.

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Mike Robertson pointed out the school size aspect in his Elite Athletic Development Seminar DVD set, and it really got me to thinking. If you go to a small school and are a good athlete, chances are that you are going to "automatically" be a starter on three different sports teams during the academic year, as they might need you to actually be able to even field a team. Thinking back, my high school graduating class had about 180 kids. One sport athletes really couldn't exist if we wanted to be competitive over all three high school seasons. Not surprisingly, I never had a classmate go through Tommy John surgery, and I can count the number of ACL injuries I saw in my high school years on one hand.

Conversely, if a kid goes to a school with 800 kids in his graduating class, specialization is much tougher to do. If you've got 150 players trying out for the baseball team (and budget cuts are eliminating freshmen and JV teams left and right), you better be spending more time preparing for baseball, if that's your long-term aspiration. The "reward" is higher (more exclusive), but the risk has to be higher as well. In a situation like this, we almost have to ask whether it's better to have a kid that tries out for - and proceeds to get cut from - three teams, or if we'd rather have guys specialized along one course so that they can at least stay involved in organized athletics by actually making a team. I don't think there is an easy or even correct answer, but I do think we have to be cognizant of the challenges facing kids at larger schools.


Geography certainly plays into this as well. As an example, it's much easier for baseball players in northern states to play basketball, too, because basketball season simply takes place while the snow is on the baseball fields. In Massachusetts, the high school baseball season starts on the third Monday in March, which is several weeks after basketball wraps up, in most cases. Conversely, high school baseball actually gets underway in Florida during the month of January; playing basketball is virtually impossible logistically. And, if fall sports go all the way until Thanksgiving, we're really dealing with a situation where kids might only get an eight-week off-season to work on their fitness and more sport-specific preparations.

We might not be able to change these factors, but we find ways to work around them. It might mean getting an athlete to play recreational basketball instead of "official" school hoops, if schedule won't allow the "real thing" to happen. And, it might mean that we need to work harder in our strength and conditioning programs to create an even richer proprioceptive environment where athletes are exposed to a wider variety of movements if these scenarios "force" them toward increased specialization.

As hackneyed a phrase as it might be, "Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it." I'd say that geography and school size certainly fit in the 10% category when it comes to early sports specialization; we all need to continue to improve on the 90%, though.

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15 Responses to “School Size, Geography, and Early Sports Specialization”

  1. Rich Landers Says:

    Hi Eric,
    Great post as usual. Another factor is community size and available resources for the “recreation” option for sports. In Central MA where one of your clients is from, the HS is stacked with AAU basketball players which blocks out the option for making the HS teams, while the town is too small to have enough gym space for rec basketball after 8th grade. This forced specialization from 9th grade on because of no other available options in the area. What we did though was make the off-season baseball strength/conditioning focus into another area of concentration.

  2. Michael cabbe Says:

    Hi eric , great article. My son as a freshman plays only baseball at this point in southern ca, up till that point 3sport kid. He kinda has no choice if he wants to play college be cause kids are going d1 right and left around him and he won’t even make the radar if he is not playing yr around with scheduled breaks for rest. The kids are way to good. The only kids pulling it off at our private school are pro athletes kids literally. NFL players kid with a big rep gets a pass to do it. I have to say I am from oregon though, 3sport land, and almost no one makes it. They are not even on radar up there. I know you are completely right, and highly trust your opinions but the reality in so cal is you don’t get noticed unless you are extremely polished player.. Kids have to put more time in but be really careful about overuse. Avoiding pitching also helps a lot and proper arm care. Your thoughts thanks eric you’re the best. Michael frustrated so cal dad

  3. Chris Goerlich Says:

    This is an interesting perspective on specialization that I had never considered. The potential role of school size on specialization is eye-opening and makes absolute sense. The local high school here has ~3900 students! Thanks for sharing!

  4. Noel Piepgrass Says:

    Super good points Eric. In California it is really difficult for a kid to be a serious baseball player if he plays a winter sport because the California season gets underway at the end of February and winter sports are still going on. We’re also seeing an extended Fall season since the advent of the State Football Playoff (which sounds like an old concept, but is only 5-6 years old in the huge state of California).

  5. MDT Says:

    Right there with you Michael. It’s different in SoCal in this regard.

  6. Brad Says:

    Great article Eric! You hit it dead on! As a former professional athlete, I would not trade where I went to high school for anything. I was at a small class A school with 41 in my graduating class. So I had the advantage of being able to play 3 sports. Had I been at the 5A school in town, I probably would have only been able to play baseball. Now I go through the same issues you discuss as most of the kids I train attend big 6A schools with 1500-2500 kids in the school.

  7. Mark Powell Says:

    The battle we are starting to see in Central New York, and at my school is “Elite” soccer programs are popping up and either drawing kids out of our school teams or, just as bad, they are playing in the same season. I have a 12 yr old girl at school who plays varsity soccer and goes to a club practice after school practices and games several nights a week, and another traveled out of town on Sunday(our day off) to play a 5 or 6 game tournament with her club team. These are not elite players either.
    The club coaches(who are making money on this) and the parents chasing non-existent scholarships are more of an issue in this area, where most of the kids are D3 athletes at best, and would benefit more from playing multiple sports than specializing.
    There are programs at various schools in this area that, if you don’t specialize you won’t make the varsity team, so the point of the article is well taken.

  8. Michael Veras Says:

    Hi Eric,

    Great article. I really enjoy reading it, a bit short but to the point.
    I believe what you are talking here is the “transferring” stage. Meaning, the-end of main competitions period to retain fitness, and in many cases to restore. Am I right?

  9. Joe Garland Says:

    I’m in Canada, home of Winter Hockey, Spring Hockey, Summer hockey, and Getting ready for Winter Hockey. I swear when kids turn 6 their parents glue skates to their feet. Up here though its generally ‘minor’ hockey that the kids play with ‘school’ hockey reserved for the more recreational players. But coaches will actually prohibit players from playing other sports at school, so it does not interfere with the minor hockey season which typically runs the length of the school year. Then the tryouts for the team that start playing in Sept are in April. Making it really hard for kids to play anything besides hockey, which inhibits their ability to become a true athlete, and possible finding a sport that they are better at than hockey. Frustrating

  10. Eric Cressey Says:

    Michael (Veras),


  11. Kim Says:

    Great article Eric,
    I completely see your point on an athlete playing more than one sport and they should especially in the early years but because of how competitive sports are today and especially here in Texas it’s almost impossible for an athlete to compete at an higher level if he or she wants to play let alone be recruited by a college team whether it be a JC, D1,2, 3 or NAIA school. In Texas we pretty much play year round sports. My son played baseball (year round) football, basketball and swim team until 9th grade when he said I can’t do it all anymore! Baseball is his love and thankfully he did play high school (1,248 graduated in his class) and went on to play 4 yrs of college (2yrs JC, 2yrs D1) with NO injuries. He ritually used his stick and foam rolled daily! Lots of dynamic stretching and prehab work at home to go along with his S&C training in the gym.

  12. Peter Gahan Says:

    Hi Eric,

    “The research” also indicates that those involved in a variety of physical activities have a greater tendency to stay active for life, probably because they have a variety of competencies and social contacts, whereas early specializers are more likely to become sedentary once they quit their competitive careers. I think this is one of the most telling arguments against early specialization. Here in Australia, the media is making a big deal about childhood obesity, but its nowhere near the problems that adult obesity is (yes, one leads to the other, but adult obesity is not such an emotional issues, apparently). And by the way, my graduating class, in a town of 15,000, had 28 males in it, so everyone played everything going: cricket, baseball, rugby, tennis, squash, soccer (as little kids, anyway), surfing, athletics (track & field), rowing, golf, squash and, by today’s standards very tame, one-on-one fistfights (its over as soon as someone gets knocked down). We were into anything but schoolwork, and we didn’t wait around waiting for someone to organize a game for us. My kids are adult now, and active, but as kids they hardly did anything that wasn’t organised by an adult. The point of this rant, if there is one, is that at our reunions, most are still “in good shape”, maybe a few bent noses, but still participating in one or more physical activities. By the way, of those 28 guys, 3 played in national teams as adults, each in a different sport, and another played a few games in the top division of a 4th. As they say, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”.

  13. Jeremy Frisch Says:

    I actually don’t think specializing or at least whittling down to just a few sports is a bad idea in high school. Considering the research from Drabik: coordination is best developed through a wide and varied means between the ages of 7-14 with the most crucial period between the ages of 10-13…after this time period (around 15-16) there seems to be a cap to which coordination can be as exponentially developed like it can in the younger years.
    Interestingly strength development has a pretty steady increase from ages 7-19(that is if they are exposed to it of course!) with a rapid increase in relative strength in the time period of 12-15(obviously hormones are kicking in)

    So it makes sense to me that upon entering those high school years there should start to be a shift(not total shift obviously) of focus from a global all around development of coordination and movement skills to more specific sports skills development as well as taking advantage of the wonderful hormonal profile that mother nature so generously provides and begin a concentration in the development of all around strength. Like you said: provide through the strength and conditioning program a wide variety of proprioceptive demands makes alot of sense. Good stuff!

  14. Eric Cressey Says:

    Awesome contribution, Jeremy. Very well said!

  15. Debbi B Says:

    Eric-I love reading your posts, and appreciate them as a parent, former coach, and physical therapist. You are spot on regarding the large school issue. Like you I went to a small school however my kids attend a school with 650 kids in a class. My daughter was a 3 sport athlete as a freshman, and has been a 2 sport athlete until now (her senior year). Another problem is that she is constantly questioned about her level of committment by her coaches. Being a multi-sport, or involved athlete is often not encouraged by coaches when the facts remain that for 99% of these kids the highest level they compete in is high school.
    My only other note is that participating in other sports is great training. It is difficult to replicate the coordination and foot skills that one does in soccer or basketball in the clinic or training room. While there are a number of high level trainers in many communities it can be cost prohibitive for many of us. One more good reason to participate in another school sport or “rec” sport.

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