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NCAA Study Reveals When Athletes Begin Sport Specialization

The results of a recent study conducted by the NCAA show that not only do many student-athletes begin specializing in their sports before the age of 12, but also that many are expected from a young age to play sports in college and beyond.

The findings reveal a disconnect between what many parents and student-athletes believe is possible and what reality shows the chances are of forging a career as a professional athlete.  

Take Division I men’s sports, for instance. Sixty-six percent of baseball players said they were expected from a young age to play in college, and 34 percent said they were expected to turn pro. Forty-nine percent said they themselves believed it was at least “somewhat likely” that they would play professionally, yet in another study conducted by the NCAA and updated in April 2015, only 8.6 percent of college baseball players (638 out of 33,431) were drafted into the majors in 2013.

Sixty-four percent of basketball players said they were expected to play in college and 43 percent were expected to turn pro. And despite the fact that only 1.2 percent of college basketball players (47 out of 18,320) were drafted by an NBA team in 2013, 73 percent said they were at least somewhat likely to play professionally.

In women’s Division I sports, 71 percent of basketball players said they were expected to play in college and 28 percent were expected to turn pro despite only 0.9 percent (32 out of 16,319) being drafted by a WNBA team in 2013. Expectations of turning professional in women’s sports were less than in men’s, but 25 percent of ice hockey players, 22 percent of golfers and 22 percent of tennis players said they were expected to either play professionally or in the Olympics.

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Even expectations of playing in college are much higher than what is realistic.

Another NCAA study, updated in February 2015, concluded that of the nearly eight million students participating in high school sports in the United States, only 460,000 would play at NCAA schools.

Sticking with the same examples, the NCAA study showed that of 482,629 high school baseball players, only 6.9 percent would play in college, while only 3.4 percent of 541,054 high school basketball players would move on to compete in college.

Just 3.8 percent of the 433,344 girls playing basketball would go on to compete in college.

The findings of the most recent study were presented at an NCAA convention in January. This was the third time the study was conducted since 2006 but the first time that student-athletes were questioned on age of specialization, burnout in youth sports and both their expectations and those of their families. Student-athletes were questioned in the spring of 2015.

Among Division I men, the sports with the greatest number of respondents who answered that they began competing in their sport by the time they were nine years old were baseball and ice hockey (both 96 percent). Soccer was close behind at 94 percent.

In women’s sports, the highest number of respondents in Division I saying they started before age nine were in soccer (96 percent), ice hockey (95 percent), gymnastics (94 percent) and softball (92 percent).

When it came to specialization, 68 percent of Division I male soccer players and 66 percent of tennis players said they began by the age of 12. Only 32 percent of baseball players, 33 percent of football players and 49 percent of basketball players said they were specializing at the same age. Sixty-seven percent of Division II soccer players and 59 percent of Division III soccer players said the same.

Among Division I women, 87 percent of Division I, II and III gymnasts said they were specializing by the age of 12. Within-sport divisional differences in specialization by the age of 12 were small except in men’s and women's basketball, men’s and women’s tennis, men’s and women’s golf, baseball and men’s lacrosse. The findings showed that women were slightly more likely to specialize by age 12.

When asked if youth in their respective sports played too many games/competitions before college, 48 percent of male baseball, football and soccer players said yes, followed by 46 percent of basketball players. Only 31 percent of swimmers said the same.

For women, 44 percent of tennis players said yes, followed by 43 percent of basketball players. Only 18 percent of gymnasts and 20 percent of rowers felt the same.

Fifty-eight percent of men playing Division I ice hockey said they competed less in college than in high school, while 60 percent of Division III females and 47 percent of Division II females playing ice hockey said the same.

Forty-three percent of football players said they wished they played more sports while growing up, and 28 percent of female basketball players said the same.

From GameChanger and Karen Price.

Baseball, Softball

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