Just a shift of gears here as we wind down the early fall sports and move into winter sports. Yes, the thought of it getting cold may make some cringe, but if you are like, I LOVE the cold weather for running. There are debates out there concerning should your kids focus on one sport or try multiple sports. You as parents should make that ultimate decision based on your kid’s needs, but here are some thoughts on sports specialization. The following is a conversation between a colleague and a well-known sports science researcher.
Can you give us an overview of the debate over kids specializing in one sport versus participating in multiple sports?
I’m not sure that it is so much of a debate, or just the general direction that youth sports are headed. Each sport throughout the year continues to expand both their season (ex: Winter Basketball) and also expand the amount of seasons where they are holding formal practices, training, games, tournaments, etc. One could say that this is the “Business of Youth Sports” but having been in this space before through my involvement in the lacrosse world, there is a way to offer a highly valued development environment for a given sport, without compromising the fact that Multi-Sport participation is hands down the best option for kids in the short and long term. Sport specialization has been proven time and time again to increase burn-out, increase injuries as well as a big thing being discussed more and more, lead to decreased physical activity levels later in life.
What are the physical benefits of multi-sport participation for student athletes?
- More opportunity to choose a sport that best fits them
- Improved movement skills that can carry over and even enhance movement patterns found in other sports
- Increased physical literacy making it easier to pick up new sports and activities
- It is now being suggested that this leads to youth turning into adults who are more likely to be active throughout the lifetime
- Increased opportunity to reach elite levels of sport
- Less likely to experience an overuse injury
What about social or mental benefits?
- Ability to be coached by a variety of different adults
- Ability to play on a team with a variety of different peers
- Ability to learn intangibles through a wide variety of sport situations and challenges
- Ability to learn skill and scheme in a wide variety of sporting environments
- Less likely to experience mental fatigue or burn-out
Is it possible for multi-sport student athletes to compete on the field with other kids who have specialized in one sport and dedicated all their efforts in that one area?
Yes. Research would show that the ceiling for athletes who specialize in a single sport is lower than an athlete who has participated in multiple sports. In the end, the multi-sport athlete will reach a higher level of play. Choosing to specialize is choosing short term success (ex: middle school stardom) over achieving the elite levels of sport (ex: 30 of 32 NFL players were multi-sport high school athletes). The athlete who has a pyramid with the biggest base of movement competency and physical literacy wins, as sport skill will eventually be layered on top of that. The base of that pyramid is a mix of genetics and environment, environment being multi-sport participation.
What activities do you recommend kids get involved in?
Everything. I highly encourage “Sport Sampling” prior to Peak Height Velocity (PHV). Not only will the athletes be more likely to find a sport/activity that they like and can be successful in, but it will give them a great chance at picking a sport that they can potentially be elite at one day. Then, once their formal sports career is over, this sampling will benefit them in that they can now go on to be an adult who can participate in a wide variety of activities because they have a high level of movement competency and physical literacy. At the end of the day, creating an active adult is and should be the most important component of WHY when it comes to multi-sport participation. They can jump into just about anything as adults and perform at a baseline level in addition to the fact that physical activity itself has been a part of their culture that they have enjoyed throughout their younger years.
Some of the more common injuries I see to athletes 17 and younger are due to the athlete focusing on one sport only. The repetitiveness of the single sports takes a toll on the child or teenager. As mentioned above, the increased risk of burnout can also lead to sloppy play and a lack of focus. This lack of focus can lead to injury. I especially see this with runners who participate in XC, winter track and spring track. By the time they reach spring track, the repetitive injuries of running have set in and the athlete never reaches their full potential in outdoor track and field. My suggestion, when in high school years, is to gauge the athlete’s talent to determine a proper sport participation. If the athlete has talent in endurance such as XC, then maybe the athlete should elect to improve strength, flexibility and mobility of their body during the winter. This would then allow them to perform at a high level in the spring. If the athlete has a talent for speed, maybe cross county (XC) is not the best choice since it doesn’t translate to more speed. That athlete should focus their strength and conditioning during the late summer and fall preparing for indoor and outdoor track season.
In conclusion, research shows that the well-rounded athlete tends to be the most successful in more ways than one. A solid strength and conditioning program coupled with proper periodization of training can lead to better performance and less trips to the doctor’s office.
All the best,
Dr. Derek Gearhart