Field of dreams. (Rich Vintage/iStock)

A major survey of NCAA student athletes released this week reveals what critics of youth sports have been saying for years: The system is really whacked.

College athletes reported specializing in their sports before the word teen is added to their ages. Many regret doing so, the survey found. The athletes think they play in too many games at too young an age. And their parents totally think they are going pro.

This was the first time that youth sports questions were added to the NCAA’s survey examining the well being of college athletes. And it might unintentionally prove to crazy sports parents that early specialization and year-round play is exactly what their children need to play in college.

“The problem is that it only captures the athletes making it through,” said Tom Farrey,  a sportswriter who runs the Aspen Institute’s initiative on youth sports. “The whole single sport thing is like throwing eggs against the wall and seeing what breaks. This survey shows the eggs that don’t break.”

Those broken eggs, to keep the omelette metaphor going, suffer from burnout and injuries. They don’t just wind up on the bench. They quit altogether, helping fuel declines in the number of children playing youth sports.

The survey showed that roughly half or more than half of Division I male athletes in soccer, tennis, hockey and basketball specialize in their sports by age 12. The same applies for female Division I athletes in gymnastics, tennis, soccer, basketball, swimming, hockey in softball. This graphic, looking at women, is striking:

The problem with early specialization, beyond the injuries and burnout, is that athletes don’t pick up the ancillary skills from other sports that would make them better competitors in their primary sport.

And the survey showed many college athletes regretted not playing other sports, especially among football, baseball, basketball and tennis players. They were also concerned that they played too many games as children.

What might account for all this? Parents, of course.

The expectations they have for their children are enormous. Take a look at this graphic showing what parents expect of their children/athletes (or what the children perceive their families expect.)

How do these expectations impact the athletes?

“These family expectations appear to carry over to cases of unrealistic pro expectations among the student-athletes themselves,” the NCAA said.

The Aspen Institute focused on this crazy number among Division III athletes:

Of course, like so much of youth sports, that’s an incredibly distorted reality.