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Cubs manager on youth traveling teams: 'I think that's crazy'

By Al Buczkowski, 05/18/15, 10:15AM CDT

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Joe Maddon thinks athletes are getting too serious, too soon. Is he right?

Joe Maddon has never been a fan of younger athletes dedicating themselves to one sport. And earlier in spring training, the new Cubs skipper took another crack at reminding us why

What started as praise for the diverse athletic resume of his centerfielder (former multi-sport high school star Dexter Fowler) ended with a brushback pitch hurled from Maddon’s youth sports soapbox.

The 2X AL Manager of the Year explained that athletes like Fowler benefit from being “around a different set of coaches and styles and ways to get in shape…”

And then he brought the heat.

"That’s why I hate the specialization of kids when they’re on these travel squads that are only 12-13-14 years olds that are only dedicated to one thing, traveling all the time, paying exorbitant amounts of money to play baseball with hopes of becoming a professional baseball player.”

"I think that’s crazy."


The former Rays manager has beef with travel ball.

Image: Keith Allison


Maddon certainly isn’t alone in his opinion. There’s growing concern over what early specialization in youth sports is leading to.

Repetitive injury. Burnout. Scholarship pressure. Unrealistic expectations.

The concerns aren’t unfounded, say studies like the ongoing collaborative effort between Loyola University and Chicago Memorial Children’s Hospital, which so far has concluded that:

“Some degree of sports specialization is necessary to develop elite-level skill development. However, for most sports, such intense training in a single sport to the exclusion of others should be delayed until late adolescence to optimize success while minimizing injury, psychological stress, and burnout.”

But beyond the worry of injury (both physical and mental) are the benefits of playing multiple sports.

Washington Post columnist Fred Bowen remembers asking Cal Ripken, Jr. at what age he started playing baseball year-round. “When I signed a professional contract at 18,” the Hall of Famer told him.

Ripken also happened to be an all-state soccer player in high school. Where do you think the shortstop’s legendary footwork comes from?

And come to think of it, injuries never really seemed to be much of a thing for Cal, did they?

OK. That might be an extreme example.

But if you’re making the case that your child doesn’t stand a chance to get to the pros if they’re not dedicated to playing their sport year round, there are plenty of examples to the contrary – from Dave Winfield (who was drafted in 3 pro sports by 4 different teams) to John Elway (drafted in 2 sports) to current stars like NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick (standout in high school basketball and baseball).

In fact, 224 of the 256 players selected in the 2015 NFL draft played more than one sport through high school.

More importantly, there are infinitely more cases of athletes not making it to the pros no matter what they do (like, well, basically everyone). And the odds of getting a full-ride college scholarship are nearly as daunting. There are more than seven million high school athletes in the U.S., but just one percent will get a full D-I scholarship.

That’s not to say dreaming big and dedicating one’s self to a single sport are crimes. Far from it. Research has shown that a drive to achieve goals on the field often bleeds over to accomplishments off it.

The key, it seems, is that those goals are always counterbalanced by the well-being of the child.

So, what’s your experience with traveling clubs and specialization? Do you agree with Maddon’s take? Or is he off base on this one?

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