Why you should care

Because specialization could wreak havoc on your child and your wallet. 

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In Vermont, Cairn Cross knows many parents enroll their children in the dozen or so ski academies that dot the small state, eager to see their child become an Olympian one day. It’s a conversation he’s often privy to, having both skied collegiately — at Montana State University, a perennial contender — and raised kids in the Green Mountain State. However, Cross thinks podium-chasing parents are going about it the wrong way: “When kids show the least bit of ambition or interest in something, I think U.S. parents these days are ripe to jump on that little kernel of interest and be like, ‘Oh, my God, my kid is going to be a symphony musician, a Broadway actor, etc.,’” Cross says. “And boom! They’re piling it on.”

And piling on the expenses too. Which is why parents should reconsider investing in a child’s sporting specialty and think about directing those funds somewhere more likely to contribute to a desired outcome: a college fund.

Specializing in any sport is, at best, a nebulous investment.

The pressure to specialize has ratcheted up with increased competition in amateur and even elementary school sports. And it’s reaching into the nooks and crannies of athletics, to previously under-the-radar sports such as equestrian, rowing and, yes, skiing. Surely, the desire to conquer and succeed with singular focus is part of American Manifest Destiny. But it could also be detrimental to the student athletes themselves. Studies have not only shown that early specialization can lead to increased injury, stress and burnout, but also that training before middle school age doesn’t make a significant difference in athletes’ abilities to reach elite status.

Those at the pinnacle of youth skiing understand the risk specialization poses for most. “In many cases, that’s not a positive athletic development in general,” says Willy Booker, head of school at Burke Mountain Academy. The high school exclusively serves eighth to 12th graders. Students spend their mornings skiing until noon in the winter before switching to an afternoon slate of classes. The goal is to get the reps necessary to one day compete at the highest level. “It’s a sport that requires that,” Booker says, compared to football and basketball, where elite athletes might be able to succeed with less practice.

From a purely financial standpoint though, specializing in any sport is, at best, a nebulous investment. And at its worst economically, it looks like the ski academy system, where annual tuitions hover at $55,000 or more. It’s a mistake to view it from a “purely transactional level,” as Booker puts it. Most of his graduates will play in the NCAA — although the school boasts 33 Olympic alumni, including five in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics — but only a few schools offer scholarships these days, and they are mostly partial ones. “What we try to focus on is there are a lot of lessons you learn competing on a high level in skiing that will serve you well for the rest of your life,” Booker says.

Across the sports spectrum, parents sometimes encourage their children to specialize — and will devote their “time and treasure” supporting that — in the often vain hope of earning admission and even a scholarship to college, says Welch Suggs, an associate professor at the University of Georgia. But only about 2 percent of high school athletes receive a scholarship — just six collegiate sports even offer full scholarships — and the average amount is about $11,000 per year, according to the NCAA. That’s some tough math. Our takeaway? Save your cash, let your middle schooler diversify their athletic résumé and invest in a college fund instead.

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