By Nolan Kowal, Sport Performance Specialist
There has been an ongoing debate in sport for years: does an athlete play one sport year-round from a young age to stay ahead of the competition, or do they play multiple sports and specialize in their favourite sport later on in their youth? There are many factors to consider here, but first let’s look at the perceived benefits of each of these paths to becoming an elite athlete.
For those who believe that early sport specialization is the path to the pros, here are some of the reasons that they give to prove that it works:
- By training for one sport, athletes develop the necessary skill sets and physical characteristics (physiological, neurological) earlier allowing them to perform those skills at a higher pace like the elite players do. This also allows them to learn the concepts of the sport to have a better understanding of the tactics needed to be an elite player. This is all driven by a need to get noticed at an early age, or to perhaps work with more experienced coaches, all in an effort to get a scholarship, be selected in a draft, or sign a professional contract.
- A properly developed training plan can help develop other athletic abilities to make a single sport athlete a better, and more rounded athlete, so that they can stay focused on their sport while improving their athleticism.
- The 10,000 hour rule as popularized by author Malcom Gladwell states that anyone who wants to be elite at anything needs to put in this much time at a minimum, to be successful. This is often interpreted by parents, coaches and skills coaches as putting in that much time in that specific activity to reach the top.
For those who believe in the multi-sport approach to athletic success, here are some of the reasons that they give to prove that this is the correct approach:
- Better overall skill, athletic ability and creativity. Early participation in multiple sports gives athletes a greater variety of movement skills to practice and master resulting in a more athletic player when they specialize in their chosen sport.
- Increased enjoyment of sport. Playing other sports gives an athlete the much needed physical and mental break from their sport to keep them wanting to come back excited for the next season. Playing multiple sports decreases the risk of burnout which in turn decreases the risk of quitting the sport early.
- Decreased risk of injury. Research has shown that athletes who play multiple sports are less likely to develop overuse injuries and muscle imbalances often facilitated by repetitive movements and stresses. Incorporating a variety of movement patterns and considering the athlete’s stresses placed on the body from other sports helps to create a more resilient and robust athlete.
Now that we understand the train of thought of the two sides of the line on the road to athletic success, let’s see what the experts say on the topic so we can decide what is the best way for young athletes to become the best athlete they can become.
The International Olympic Committee released a consensus statement on youth athletic development in 2015 and here are some of the highlights of that statement:
- Adopt viable, evidence-informed and inclusive frameworks of athlete development that are flexible (using ‘best practice’ for each developmental level), while embracing individual athlete progression and appropriately responding to the athlete’s perspective and needs.
- Commit to the psychological development of resilient and adaptable athletes characterised by mental capability and robustness, high self-regulation and enduring personal excellence qualities—that is, upholding the ideals of Olympism.
- Encourage children to participate in a variety of different unstructured (ie, deliberate play) and structured age-appropriate sport-related activities and settings, to develop a wide range of athletic and social skills and attributes that will encourage sustained sport participation and enjoyment.
This statement is very revealing when it comes to the development of a complete athlete. Notice that these highlights encourage playing multiple sports (structured or unstructured), creating resilient and robust athletes through mental and athletic development in a progression that meets the needs of the athlete. This means that coaches need to consider the needs of individual athletes as well as the needs of the team, if they are involved in a team sport, of course.
Consider an Athlete’s Growth and Development
Athletes, parents and coaches need to understand that every child grows and develops at different rates. Some athletes hit their Peak Height Velocity (PHV), or growth spurt, at the age of 11 while some hit theirs at the age of 15 or 16. This is where a child starts to develop the physical characteristics of an adult and it plays a huge role in what level they play at between those age ranges. It can in turn affect their mental outlook towards that sport. This is where resilience and staying positive comes into play.
The key is to control the things you can control. You can’t control when your body grows, but you can control how you eat, train, think and react to what happens to you. If you eat right, train in a progression that helps you become more athletic, stronger and faster and react to setbacks as a learning opportunity to grow and get better from, you will have a much better chance of reaching the level you want to.
I can speak to this from the perspective of my own son. When he was between the ages of 8 and 10, he was a pretty solid little hockey player. He loved to play and was a good skater, had good skills and had good hockey sense for his age. When he was 11, he tried out for AA hockey and was the last cut before they picked their team. He was devastated and it was difficult to explain to him that it had very little to do with his skills as a player and how he played the game but more related to his size and strength (or lack thereof). He was small and coaches picked more physically developed players.
This continued on for the next few years as he was essentially in the last group of cuts of the top level. As time went on, he was still devastated when he got cut but he started to train to become a better and stronger athlete and he also started getting involved in other sports like lacrosse, basketball, volleyball, football and golf. He became a better athlete but he was still small. Then, something dramatic happened between the ages of 14 and 15, he grew. He went from 5’1’’ and around 110 pounds to 5’7” and 140 pounds and the next thing you know, he was playing AAA hockey at the age of 15 and started passing those who grew and developed at a younger age because he was patient, he worked hard at becoming a better and stronger athlete, not just a better hockey player.
From my standpoint as a Strength and Conditioning Coach, it was very interesting to watch it unfold the way that it did. It solidified my approach to developing athletes and how taking a long-term development approach with them is the right thing to do. As a parent, it was hard to watch him not play at the level he was capable of playing, just because he was a smaller kid. He went on to play 3 years of AAA hockey (U17 and U18) and then was able to take that momentum on and play in the Alberta Junior Hockey League when he was 18 and now is playing in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League in his 19 year old season. All of this to say that doing things the right way and being patient and resilient goes a long way to becoming a good athlete and in this case a good hockey player as well, but I don’t know if he would be where he is if he didn’t train the right way and play all of those other sports along the way.
The Downfalls of Early Specialization
The research is clear on this, early specialization in sport can result in an increased risk of developing overuse injuries from repeating the same movements over and over, day after day, month after month, year after year. In a study on female youth athletes by Christopher DiCesare, a biomechanist in the Division of Sports Medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Ohio they found that girls who specialize too early in sports such as basketball, soccer and volleyball could find that a single-minded focus “may hinder motor development and lead to compromised hip and knee coordination during dynamic landing and jumping activities, which can lead to increased chance of potentially life-altering injuries.” The study also found that girls who focused on a single sport had a higher rate of hip and knee injuries and an increase in knee pain. This is only one of many studies that show that there is an increased risk of injury from specializing too early.
The National Athletic Trainers Association in the United States released an official statement on the recommendations to reduce the risk of injury related to sport specialization for adolescent and young athletes that is highlighted in the comments of Tory Lindley (MA, ATC) saying, “when athletes specialize too early, or engage in excessive play, they are increasing the probability of injury and reducing the chances of achieving their goals. We want to help athletes and parents recognize health is a competitive advantage.”
The most widely accepted definition of athlete burnout describes it as a psychological syndrome characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion, a reduced sense of accomplishment in sport, and sport devaluation—not valuing or caring as much about sport as they used to (Raedeke, 1997). Burnout can be caused by many things including:
- Heavy training volumes and insufficient recovery times that can lead to mental and physical exhaustion.
- High levels of deliberate practice with little to no time for unstructured play can lead to a decreased enjoyment of sport.
- Highly structured, intense training can leave youth athletes feeling like they have no control or input into their involvement in sport.
Parents should also keep in mind that these things can happen with multi-sport athletes as well, especially if they have so many activities planned out for their kids that there is no time to relax and play with their friends. As parents, we don’t need to plan out every minute of every day for our kids. They need time to unwind, just like adults do.
The Rise of the Multi-Sport Athlete
There are several benefits of participating in multiple sports during the formative years of a child’s life. They range from physical, social and psychological benefits that can often keep a child healthy, happy and engaged. Below are some of the benefits participating in multiple sports:
1) Filling the Movement Toolbox
Playing multiple sports allows a youth athlete to fill their movement toolbox with multiple movement patterns that not only challenge an athlete to move in different ways but to also avoid doing the same movements over and over that can lead to injury. By developing these different patterns of movement through practice and playing multiple sports, athletes improve their physical literacy and ultimately their athleticism in the process. This improved athleticism can often help them perform better in the sport they choose to specialize in when the time is right to do that.
A great example of this from World and Olympic Champion Soccer player Amy Wambach in explaining how playing basketball helped her become a better soccer player. She said, “playing basketball had a significant impact on the way I play the game of soccer. In basketball I was a power forward and I would go up and rebound the ball. So, learning the timing of your jump, learning the trajectory of the ball coming off the rim, all those things play a massive role.” You can see how the ability to jump and the timing of the jump as a basketball player helped her become a better soccer player.
Here are some other examples of how playing one sport can positively affect an athlete’s level of play in another sport:
- A hockey player who also played soccer is better able to control the puck in their feet and move the puck up to their stick quickly and efficiently. Also, the speed, agility and conditioning required for soccer has a great deal of carry over in those areas to the sport of hockey as well.
- A football player who also played basketball understands how to position their body to stay in front of their check and defend and tackle because of the footwork developed in basketball. The ability to run, jump, catch and throw are also skills that can carry over from basketball to football.
- From an individual sport perspective, a swimmer who also participated in rowing or paddling could benefit from the upper body strength built through those sports to become a stronger swimmer.
These are only a few examples of how other sports can help build various aspects of an athlete’s physical attributes to help them to become better at their main sport when it comes time to decide to specialize. For more examples check out Sport Manitoba’s #PlayMoreBeMore campaign.
2) Injury Prevention
As stated above, filling that movement toolbox with a variety of movement patterns help athletes become more athletic but doing so also helps them become less likely to get injured. Playing multiple sports gives athletes a break from one sport that allows them to move in a different way which decreases the repetitive stress that one sport can put on a body. Couple that with improved athleticism and you have an added support of moving better and more efficiently in multiple directions and at different speeds to better handle the stresses put on the body from the specialized sport.
3) Having Fun
Let’s also keep in mind that the majority (99+%) of youth athletes also never make it to the Olympics or the professional level in any sport so we need to have some perspective on the other benefits of sport other than becoming the elite of the elite.
- Sport is about building confidence and character.
- Sport is about working in a team environment and building relationships with others.
- Sport is about developing good work habits.
- Most importantly of all, sport is about having fun competing with and against your friends.
These are all great life skills that can carry over to life outside of sport whenever an athlete’s competitive athletic career ends, whether that is at the age of 17 or after a 17 year professional or Olympic career.
For more information on Canada’s Long Term Athlete Development Model and the Performance Pathway check out www.sportforlife.ca.
For more information on Sport Manitoba’s #PlayMoreBeMore campaign to learn the many benefits of being a multi-sport athlete, visit our page here.