Outside of a Ronda Rousey fight, there are few outcomes in sports today as sure as a Serena Williams push deep into the fortnight of a Grand Slam tournament. She has won the past three US Opens, and given her resolve to become the first player since 1988 to take all four majors in a calendar year, no one will be surprised if the final image next week is of Williams again holding a shiny object above her beaming mug — a sight now so common that the object may as well be a crown signifying the best ever to play the game.
Then, another battle begins — over what it takes to be the best ever. And, maybe, the future of youth sports in America.
The simple, familiar narrative of Williams is of a child engineered for tennis success by a father who started training his daughters to be world beaters before they even entered grade school. Key champions of this storyline are advocates for specializing in one sport before adolescence, and include much of the youth sports industry — certainly many private coaches and club owners who need to pay their mortgages 12 months a year, and thus promote a model of families paying them 12 months a year.
But was singular focus on one sport the secret in Richard Williams’ sauce?
A growing cadre of academics and coaching educators who study talent identification and the development of elite athletes question the conventional wisdom and see other factors in the background of Serena and Venus Williams as more relevant in explaining the extraordinary achievements of the sisters, most notably Serena.
“She could have played basketball or other sports along with tennis until age 14 and would have been no less successful,” said Dr. Neeru Jayanthi, professor of sports medicine at Emory University and president of the International Society for Tennis Medicine and Science. “She’s just a phenomenal athlete.”
In Serena, 34, Jayanthi sees an extreme competitor who didn’t get burned out on competition like many of her rivals through limiting the number of tournaments she plays. That tactic extends to her childhood, when her father kept her and Venus out of the expensive, injury-inducing junior tennis circuit dominated by early bloomers chasing national rankings before puberty. Venus and Serena focused on skill development and schoolwork instead before they each turned pro at the age of 14.
It’s also a myth that the Williams sisters had no exposure to other sports or athletic activities, said Kurt Kamperman, CEO of Community Tennis for the U.S. Tennis Association. “You watch the way [Serena] serves — she was throwing a ball,” he said. He recalls seeing them at an event in the early 1990s, when the girls where young teenagers, tossing around a Nerf football and thinking, Holy smokes, what form. That form was on display again this week, when the USTA posted a photo of Serena tossing a football during practice at the Open.
A few years ago, I wrote a book on the landscape of contemporary youth sports, “Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children,” that sparked the creation of an Aspen Institute initiative, Project Play, designed to identify solutions that stakeholders can use to get and keep kids active through sports. In our convening of more than 300 thought leaders in a series of roundtables, at the 2014 espnW Women + Sports Summit and elsewhere, sport sampling emerged as a major opportunity. In our final report, it was encouraged as one of the eight strategies for the eight sectors that touch the lives of children.
The USTA is one of more than a dozen groups that responded to the report. The organization’s leadership made a decision to “endorse” multi-sport play for children at least through the age 12, a response to the trend toward early specialization that has gutted their pipeline of future talent. Jayanthi, in one study, found that 70 percent of players competing in USTA junior elite tennis events specialized in tennis by age 10.
None, in a generation really, have emerged as contenders. After Serena, the highest-ranked U.S. woman today is Madison Keys, No. 19 in the world. On the men’s side, it’s John Isner at No. 13, Jack Sock at 28, and Sam Querrey at 38. Donald Young, once a much-touted prodigy, is down at 68. The last American man to win a major was Andy Roddick in 2003. There have been 47 Grand Slams since Roddick’s title run at Flushing Meadows, which is by far the U.S. men’s longest Grand Slam title drought in the Open era.
“Historically, we’ve had a lot of athletes in our game specialize early, especially on the women’s side,” said Martin Blackman, who became USTA general manager for player development this year. “But that doesn’t mean it’s the best practice. We have to look to the future, and in the future you’re not going to be able to be a single-sport athlete and compete at the top level. The athleticism required is just going through the roof and there’s no way the necessary speed, agility and explosiveness can be developed through tennis alone. There just isn’t.”
Blackman points to Rafael Nadal, who played lots of soccer when he was young. So did No. 2-ranked Roger Federer and No. 3 Andy Murray, whose footwork is among the best in the game. Top-ranked Novak Djokovic grew up skiing in the mountains of his native Serbia and talked earlier this year about the how the sport helps his balance and sliding ability on court. Even the modest success achieved by U.S. men largely has been with multi-sport athletes — Roddick, Isner and Querrey all played high school basketball.
“There’s no evidence to suggest that early specialization creates better long-term success,” Jayanthi said. “The problem is, we’ve been doing this in our sport for so long that now parents think there’s only one pathway in tennis. Everyone believes specialization is the way to go.”
Jayanthi’s research shows that tennis has the highest rates of specialization, followed by gymnastics. Those two sports also have the highest rate of serious overuse injuries. It’s less of a problem in team sports, but an emerging one — enough so that nearly all of the national governing bodies of sports, plus most of the professional leagues, the NCAA, the U.S. Olympic Committee and other leading groups, joined the USTA in its endorsement of multi-sport play for children. The USTA announced the endorsement last month in a full-page spread in the Sports Business Journal, a trade publication.
The benefit of early specialization, at least from the parent’s or child’s perspective, is that the most developed kids get selected for early-forming elite teams or pools that offer access to better coaching and competition. A research review conducted by the University of Florida for Project Play notes that early samplers may not stand out as easily, and thus lose interest or self-select out of the sport. In gymnastics and perhaps one to two other sports dominated by teenagers at the Olympic level, a single-sport focus is all but demanded, if a child seeks that level.
But most sports reward patience, and early specialization can have “significant negative consequences on the development of an athlete over time,” the University of Florida report concludes. Among the documented impacts: increased burnout and dropout from the sport; less enjoyment and higher rates of injury; social isolation; staleness; physiological imbalances; shortened careers; limited range of motor skills; and decreased participation in sport activities into adulthood.
Throw eggs against a wall, and see which ones do not break. That’s the emerging ethos of our youth sport culture, transformed over the past generation by the chase for the college athletic scholarship.
Participation declines in team sports are driving interest in the topic by the leagues. Among 6- to 17-year-olds, most of the largest sports are down over the past five years — football, baseball, basketball, even soccer — and the average number of team sports played per participant has fallen from 2.14 to 2.01, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has noted that the primary factor in becoming a fan of the game is playing it as kid.
But there’s growing sense among sport leaders that they cannot turn the tide alone.
“An organization with national reach needs to establish a realistic vision for multi-sport play and take a leadership role to get the many sports institutions to support it,” said Chris Marinak, senior vice president at Major League Baseball, which launched a $30 million initiative in July to grow youth activity in baseball and softball.
“One possibility is to partner with other sports so we can direct kids to different sports throughout the year,” said Darrin Steele, CEO of USA Bobsled and Skeleton. “You might risk losing some of your athletes, but you might also gain new athletes from other sports. Essentially, you could grow the pie by working together rather than just competing for the same athletes.”
Other ideas that have been floated include creating more multi-sport clubs, delaying the introduction of travel teams and age-group national tournaments, training coaches in the principles of physical literacy, and encouraging organizations connected to governing bodies to limit competition to no more than one or two seasons before age 13. Today in many communities, families can sign up for private, year-round programs in one sport as early as age 5.
“After U-12, kids can certainly self-select to be one-sport athletes, but before that they definitely should be trying as many sports as possible to develop all appropriate motor skills to become a complete athlete,” said Kyle Boyer, national development director for USA Field Hockey. “We need to get back to where we once were, where kids got to play what they wanted at different times during the year and [weren’t] pressured into playing just one sport at such an early age.”
In August, the New York Times reported that Jordan Spieth told a group of kids he played more baseball than golf until he was “12 or 13,” and that he also made room for soccer, basketball and football. As the first American man to hold the world No. 1 ranking since Tiger Woods, his backstory challenges the narrative laid down a generation earlier by Woods and his late father, Earl, who focused his son on one sport. So does that of the U.S. women’s national soccer team, whose members, on the eve of the World Cup, touted the benefits of playing multiple sports into high school in USA Today. Surveys show that most U.S. Olympians and college athletes played more than one sport well into adolescence.
Still, Jayanthi says that it will take more than anecdotes and statistics to shift the culture. It will take policy shifts, or at least recommendations like that made by the USTA and its peers around multi-sport play. Only then will parents know that while pro and college athletes have followed many pathways, some are more hazardous than others.
“Recommendations are like speed limits,” he said. “Some can drive 80 miles an hour all the time, out of control, and never have a problem. But we need to set the speed limit at 55 anyway, while accepting that some are going to break it. Best practices serve the broadest group of people, and in this case playing more than one sport is what’s best for the large majority of kids.”
It’s about giving children the childhood they deserve.
Tom Farrey (@tomfarrey) is an ESPN reporter and executive director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program. On Sept. 7 and 8 at the U.S. Open, he will moderate a pair of Project Play roundtables that will convene league, governing bodies, media and other leaders for a discussion on multi-sport play.