Wambach believes that the success of her time in soccer, the end of which feels that much closer, would not have been possible without her exploits on the hardwood in her youth. “Playing basketball had a significant impact on the way I play the game of soccer,” Wambach said. “I am a taller player in soccer, in basketball I was a power forward and I would go up and rebound the ball. So learning the timing of your jump, learning the trajectory of the ball coming off the rim, all those things play a massive role.
While specialization is a booming and concerning trend in youth sports, with athletes as young as 10 years old focusing solely on one discipline as competition for college scholarships and professional careers reaches extreme levels, the U.S. women’s team can be seen as proof that such an approach is not the only route to success. A quick survey of members of the squad found that collectively they played at least 14 different sports competitively while growing up, as well as soccer. And significantly, all believe the other disciplines enhanced rather than hindered their soccer careers.
Wambach lettered in basketball at Our Lady of Mercy High School in Rochester, N.Y., and could have played at the collegiate level. Midfielder Morgan Brian played basketball all four years of high school and says it is “the same game as soccer, in terms of vision.” Forward Amy Rodriguez swam, played softball and ran track. Lauren Holiday also competed in track, played basketball and baseball and “would have played football if they had let me.”
“Having that variety is an awesome thing and I would encourage any young athlete or parent not to restrict themselves,” Holiday added. “Doing different things develops different parts of your body. It can help prevent injuries and definitely help prevent burnout.”
Back-up central defender Whitney Engen might have been the busiest childhood athlete on the U.S. roster, describing her youth as a “whirlwind of athletic activity”. Engen competed in gymnastics, tennis, baseball, softball, swimming, lifeguarding, volleyball and beach volleyball while growing up in the Los Angeles area and is not a subscriber to the Malcolm Gladwell theory of Outliers.
“It is really unfortunate seeing how things are going with some kids these days,” Engen said. “It is easy to fixate on those 10,000 hours but sport is such a subtle thing. You might not realize that what you’re doing in volleyball is improving your spatial awareness and communication, but in reality maybe it is.” Gladwell’s book suggested that 10,000 hours of quality training in a specific discipline could, in most cases, turn anyone into an elite level athlete.
The trend of youngsters being pushed towards specialization shows no sign of slowing down. In February, Rivals.com published profiles of aspiring quarterbacks Daron Bryden and Tyson Thornton, describing Bryden as a pro-style QB and a “future Tom Brady.” Bryden was then 12 and weighed a touch over 100 pounds. Natural fears of burnout were raised, but stoutly defended by his parents.
“I understand the argument of people being one sport athletes at a young age, but for me and my personality I would get burned out as a young kid playing just one sport,” said Wambach, who focused solely on soccer when she went to the University of Florida and quickly progressed into the national team ranks. “Having the ability to play basketball for a bit throughout the year gave me the chance to crave soccer, to miss it.”