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NCAA study offers revealing look Into youth sports

By Al Buczkowski, 01/22/16, 6:45AM CST


From early specialization to unrealistic expectations, concerns voiced about the youth sports experience

From regrets about specializing too early to unrealistic expectations, a new NCAA study of student-athletes offers insight into some of the most pressing issues in youth sports today, straight from the ones who actually made it to the "next level".

Released earlier this month, the first report of the 2015 Growth, Opportunities, Aspirations, and Learning of Students in College Study (GOALS), highlights the experiences of college athletes as they relate to a variety of topics – from the recruiting process to the social and academic aspects of campus life.

But it’s the section titled “Youth Sports Experiences” that should cause all of us to step back and reflect on the reasons we are really encouraging kids to participate in sports. You can read the whole report here, but below is a sampling.


Many NCAA student-athletes, especially in sports like ice hockey, tennis (DI and DII only) and soccer, began specializing in their sports at what experts consider a very early age (e.g., before age 12).

NCAA women are slightly more likely to specialize in their main sport by age 12.

In Division I men’s athletics, soccer (68%), tennis (66%), ice hockey (55%), and basketball (49%) saw the highest levels of specialization before age 12. And across all divisions of men’s athletics, it was the football (43%), basketball (39%), and baseball (37%) players who wished they had participated in other sports growing up the most.

Meanwhile, in Division I women’s athletics, gymnastics (87%), tennis (72%), soccer (62%), and basketball (55%) saw the highest levels of specialization before age 12. But the percentage of athletes who wished they had participated in other sports was lower than the men, with the two highest being basketball (28%) and tennis (24%) players.


Student-athletes in many sports played that sport year-round growing up and participated in the sport on both club and high school teams. Many NCAA athletes think youth in their sport play in too many contests and a number of them (especially men) wish they had spent more time sampling other sports when they were young.

Of those, about 47% of men’s baseball, football, soccer, and basketball player across all divisions think that kids in their sport play in too many games/competitions before entering college.

That’s compared to the women across all divisions, where 44% of tennis players and 43% of basketball players thought the same.


Many current NCAA student-athletes had high parental/family expectations of playing college and/or professional/Olympic sports that started at a young age. This is especially true among participants in certain DI/DII sports.

Of all the findings in the study, the numbers surrounding expectations of families and athletes might be the most worrisome because, mathematically speaking, they have no basis in reality.

For example, 71% of DI women’s basketball players surveyed say their families expected. them to be college athletes from a young age.


Even though another NCAA study found that “just over three in 100, or 3.7 percent, of high school senior girls interscholastic basketball players will go on to play women's basketball at a NCAA member institution.”

More disconcerting, the GOALS report goes on to state that:

These family expectations appear to carry over to cases of unrealistic pro expectations among the student-athletes themselves.

For instance, 47% of DI women’s basketball players thought it at least “somewhat likely” that they would become professionals or Olympians in their sport.

But, according to the NCAA, only 0.9 percent of them will get drafted by the WNBA. Granted, this does not account for the numerous European leagues, but the point remains – family pressure seems to feed unrealistic athletic aspirations.

Definitely food for thought.

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