Children who grow up watching sports all have big athletic dreams when they are young. It’s hard to blame them. Who wouldn’t want to believe they can hit the walk-off home run in Game 7 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium, or catch the game winning touchdown in the Super Bowl, or make a 30-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole at Augusta National to win the Masters? Some kids even imagine themselves in that situation when they are practicing or playing with their friends. That’s all fun and games, and that is what sports at the youth level should be.
Of course, kids playing sports should learn the fundamental skills, the technical and tactical aspects, and sportsmanship and etiquette of the sport they are playing. But youth sports should also be fun. In nearly every study published asking children why they play sports, having fun is the number one reason. If having fun is the reason why kids play, why is the youth sports system set up for intense competition, long practices, and never-ending seasons? Why is it that a child is almost forced to choose to play one sport at such a young age?
Is the argument for single-sport specialization college scholarships? A study of college athletes done by the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine found that 88 percent of college athletes played more than one sport. Regardless of that fact, and regardless of how elusive a college athletic scholarship is, high school athletic directors report an increasing trend in single-sport specialization.
Risks Associated With Single-Sport Specialization
Even if single-sport specialization is the answer in the parents’ or child’s mind, it is important to look at the risks associated with playing one sport all year long, spanning far beyond the “traditional” sport season windows (basketball in winter, baseball in spring, etc.).
The first risk is an increased potential for injury. By playing the same sport season after season, day after day, children are using the same muscles, ligaments, and bones in increasingly repetitive movements. This does not allow for proper recovery time for the muscles to adapt to the training stimulus. Without proper recovery, injury risk increases.
A study commissioned by the National Federation of High Schools (the national governing body for high school sports) found that high school athletes who specialize in one sport are 70% more likely to sustain an injury during the season that athletes who play multiple sports.
A second risk is increased potential for burnout. The NCAA has defined burnout as “the absence of motivation as well as complete mental and physical exhaustion.” Generally, the increase in competition leads to more extrinsic motivations to play sports (rather than for the intrinsic reasons why most children start participating in sports). Extrinsic motivation can only sustain participation for a finite amount of time, leading to burnout. It’s hard to blame a 10-year old for not wanting to play baseball or soccer (or any other sport for that matter) after playing hundreds of games and having attended hundreds of practices already in his or her young life.
Burnout is a problem because of the benefits participation in sports and physical activity provides. Children who specialize in a sport too soon and drop out of that sport are less likely to be physically active adults. This is contrary to a key purpose and mission of youth sports: the acquisition of physical literacy skills to become an active adult and participate in lifelong physical activity.
Benefits Of Multiple-Sport Participation
After examining two major risks associated with single-sport specialization, it’s also essential to identify why participating in multiple sports is beneficial for children.
By introducing new and different training stimuli that each different sport requires, injury risk decreases. In addition, changing sports every season keeps the activity “fresh,” new, and exciting for the child participating. This decreases the risk of burnout and promotes a healthy lifestyle.
Many sports, while different, require the same or similar skill sets that can be transferred from sport to sport. For example, techniques and strategy in invasion games such as soccer, lacrosse, hockey, and basketball can be applied to each different sport. Granted, each sport has a different amount of players involved and slightly different scoring methods, but (as an example) defensive technique skills can be transferred across many sports.
Every sport requires hand-eye (or foot-eye) coordination. By training different aspects of this, children can increase their reaction speed.
A common saying goes “the jack of all trades, the master of none;” it does not apply to sports. As evidenced by the college athlete participation study, a jack of all sports can be a master of one. And that athlete might just hit the World Series clinching home run, or catch the Super Bowl winning touchdown, or make the winning putt at the Masters.