Matt Campbell: Early Specialization a 'Crime' Against Youth Athletes

The Iowa State head football coach purposefully seeks out multi-sport athletes in recruiting for their competitive qualities.

Matt Campbell is one heck of a football coach.

In 2016, he inherited an Iowa State program that had won eight or more games in a season just once since 1978.

He's now led the Cyclones to back-to-back eight-win seasons, and the team's on track for another successful campaign this year.

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Matt Campbell is one heck of a football coach.

In 2016, he inherited an Iowa State program that had won eight or more games in a season just once since 1978.

He's now led the Cyclones to back-to-back eight-win seasons, and the team's on track for another successful campaign this year.

Iowa State rarely lands top-ranked recruits, so Campbell and his staff focus on finding competitive athletes with the right DNA for their culture.

Many of those recruits happen to be multi-sport athletes in high school, which Campbell believes is no mere coincidence.

He spoke on the topic of early specialization in a recent press conference:

"I think one of the great crimes today we're doing with youth, especially youth sports, is just we've gotten into this culture where we've got travel baseball, we have AAU basketball, we've got these 7-on-7 leagues. To be honest with you, I'd rather have a kid that's—one of the great things about being in this state, to be honest with you, is to watch so many kids who are four-sport athletes. That wasn't that way maybe in Ohio, and certainly not way down in some of the southern states, where some of these kids are just specializing in sports.

Because the greatest ingredient you lose, is you lose competition and how to compete. You can't compete in the weight room. You can't compete with a trainer, even though everybody's selling you to go do that, but you can't. When you compete is when you're winning or you're losing and you're figuring out how to win. I think that's what track teaches you, I think that's what wrestling teaches you, that's what basketball teaches you, that's what baseball teaches you.

To me, that is a huge piece of our recruiting process. Because it gives us at least one answer to the intangible that's really important—how do you compete? How do you act when things don't go well? How do you respond to adversity? We get to see it live and in color. And those things are really, really important to our staff, at least in our evaluation of a young person coming in."

Campbell's comments were preceded by an anecdote on his recruitment of current Cyclones defensive end Zach Petersen.

The coach was initially concerned by Petersen's wiry frame, and it was only after watching him compete at a high school wrestling tournament that Campbell realized he had the makeup to come in and contribute quickly. Petersen, now a sophomore at Iowa State, currently leads their defensive line in tackles.

To Campbell's point, the multi-sport athlete does seem to be alive and well in the state of Iowa.

We recently wrote an article on the University of Iowa's starting offensive line, all of whom played at least three sports in high school. This article outlines several of the multi-sport athletes Campbell's brought to Ames.

Campbell's view on multi-sport athletes meshes with what we've heard from dozens of other college coaches. We've yet to hear a college coach claim they prefer athletes who specialize early.

In addition to all the reasons Campbell outlined, research has found athletes who specialize early also tend to be far less durable than those who continue playing multiple sports into high school.

Don't buy the hype that you need to specialize early if you want to earn a college scholarship or be a special athlete—it's simply not true.

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Topics: YOUTH SPORTS | HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL | COLLEGE FOOTBALL | IOWA STATE | MULTI-SPORT ATHLETES