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Multi-Sport Athletes vs. Early Sport Specialization – Benefits, Risks and Proper Timing to Sports Excellence

Part 1 – Athlete Growth and Development

By Jeff Wood, Sport Performance Specialist

Almost every day there are articles written or posted about early specialization in sport versus athletes participating in multiple sports. Personally, I am a proponent of playing multiple sports as a child and doing so well into the teen years because there is plenty of evidence that this helps athletes build their movement pattern bank account and become very athletic. Having said that, there will come a time in an athlete’s career when they will discover what they excel at the most, and they will need to make a decision to specialize in that sport or to keep being a solid multi-sport athlete. 

The decision will come down to the following: do I want to excel at one sport or be good at many sports? This point in time will be different for every sport based on an athlete’s ideal age for peak performance. For example, a gymnast will need to specialize earlier because their peak performance age is typically earlier while endurance sport athletes tend to peak later.

There was a great stat that came out after the 2019 Super Bowl that polled all of the players in that game that said that approximately 95 per cent of the participants were at least two-sport athletes growing up. What is important to note here is that those athletes all specialized at some point and became great football players but not before reaping the athletic benefits of playing more than one sport for the majority of their developmental years.Vball

For every coach or parent that says their athletes are great players because they specialized early, there are others that will say that their athletes became great players because they were multi-sport athletes first. There is no one best way to develop an athlete to elite levels in sport. 

There are many ways to get to the highest levels in sport and some will have specialized early and some athletes would have played multiple sports to get there. We are not going to debate whose model is the best because there are examples of successful athletes at both ends of the spectrum and in all areas in between. What we will do is show the potential pros and cons of each and provide some guidelines on how to decide when the best time to specialize is.

The website, www.sportforlife.ca shows the Canadian Long Term Athlete Development model and its stages. There is a lot of great information on this site to help athletes and parents figure out what kinds of activities they should be looking for and when in the child’s development they should be doing them.

Let’s take a sport like hockey for example.  We will compare two male hockey players. Athlete 1 is a 13-year-old and is 5’11” and weighs 165 lbs while Athlete 2 is also 13-years-old but is 5’1” tall and weighs 110 lbs. Athlete 1 has clearly hit puberty, gone through their major growth spurt, and is basically adult-sized while Athlete 2 hasn’t hit puberty or grown and is still basically a child. Both are the same age and skilled players but Athlete 1 will get far more attention paid to him and get far more opportunities to advance than Athlete 2. 

Early development by Athlete 1 is advantageous in the following ways:

  • This athlete is skilled but also has the physical characteristics most junior scouts are looking for, he may very well get drafted by a CHL team or at the very least his provincial junior league. This will allow him many opportunities to move on to higher levels at his young age.
  • The strength and power gained through early growth and development will allow this athlete to compete with older, stronger players and show his superior physical strength over players in his own age group.

The potential disadvantages to Athlete 1’s early development are:

  • A mentality that because of the early development they are superior in every way to Athlete 2 giving them a feeling that they don’t have to work as hard to be successful and move to the next level.
  • Early success in sport where an athlete doesn’t have any disappointments or failures can lead to devastation when a player gets cut for the first time later in their athletic career. This can often be career-ending for an athlete like this.

Delayed physical development of Athlete 2 is advantageous in the following ways:Badminton

  • They develop a good work ethic and often realize that through hard work, they can keep up with the larger athletes and as they put in more work and get stronger they stay within reach of the level of their larger counterparts.
  • They become resilient. Once they get over the devastation of getting released or cut at an earlier age, they use disappointment as fuel to help them realize their goals.
  • Late developing athletes often build the key athletic abilities and become strong before they grow which will accentuate their physical development once they hit their PHV (Peak Height Velocity/growth spurt), often avoiding the awkward stage that many early developing athletes go through.

The potential disadvantages to Athlete 2’s late growth and development are:

  • They get stuck at a lower level of play for a longer period of time making it hard to keep up with Athlete 1. This is especially challenging for those stuck a level or two below where they probably should be for 2-4 years. 
  • Often times the coaching at the lower levels is not as good and this can limit skill development.
  • They get frustrated with the sport and move on to other sports or quit playing sports all together before they realize their full potential.

The above scenario is pretty common across most sports regardless of gender. For females, they will hit PHV earlier than males but they will have the same situations arise. There will always be some athletes who grow and develop at an earlier age and achieve peak performance early, then there will be athletes who grow and develop later and peak at a later age, and finally the majority will follow the typical development model and fall somewhere in between that.

 

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