Why Kids Should Play More Than One Sport

And the Drawbacks of Early Sport Specialization

Early Sport Specialization

Kids sports nowadays have gotten more and more intense. It seems like parents are signing their kids up for private coaching and travel teams before they learn to tie their own shoes. Ever since the world saw the results of a father taking his 2-year old son to the golf course every day, parents and coaches have taken notice.

As much as we’re pressured into specializing our kids early in their sport – from coaches, schools, peers, other parents, travel teams – there is much evidence showing that early sport specialization has its detriments. On the flip-side, though, multi-sport participation proves to be very beneficial.

Let’s take a closer look…

We all know that sports are pretty popular in the United States. Currently, some 60 million kids between the ages of 6 and 18 are involved in some form of organized athletics1 – and that number continues to rise…

Plus, serious involvement in sports is being seen in children younger than ever before. In fact, there’s been an increase in sports participation in kids under age 7 from 9% to 12% from 1997 to 20082.

Early Sport Specialization

With all of the pressure for kids to compete for coveted starting positions, travel teams, and college scholarships, parents and coaches are pushing kids to specialize in one sport to maximize their potential.

What is sport specialization?

Sport specialization is intensive, year-round training in a single sport, while any other sport participation is excluded3.

We’ve learned from Malcolm Gladwell that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill – that’s 10 hours of practice per week, continuously, for 20 years straight.

But college recruiters start scouting at around age 16.

If your kid starts at age 6, that leaves 10 years. Now, to master that skill, you’ve got to put in 20 hours per week…every week – this doesn’t leave much wiggle-room for other activities.

Now, don’t get me wrong – hard work, dedication, and discipline are important lessons to learn for kids in school and in sports – these skills prepare them for real life.

We have to remember, though, that kids aren’t adults, and childhood is the most crucial time to develop every aspect of our kids to become well-rounded adults.

I don’t warn of this merely because of my own opinions, but because of the overwhelming evidence on the topic.

A recent policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that kids should be discouraged from specialization in a single sport before adolescence to avoid physical and psychological damage4.

Dedicating so much of your time into one sport can have many negative impacts on a child including:

1. Social Isolation: Let’s face it – kids who play one sport miss out on a lot of other activities. They may not have the same opportunities to develop socially with peers and family members during these crucial developmental years.

2. Overdependence: Children and adolescents who participate heavily in a sport can have their schedules and lives planned out for them by parents and coaches. Multiple studies suggest that the coach is the primary driving influence on the decision to specialize in a single sport5. Because of this, kids can lose a sense of control on how to live their lives by becoming too dependent on others.

3. Burnout: Burnout happens when kids feel like they can’t live up to the demands placed on them. What can lead to burnout are negative performance evaluations, inconsistent feedback from coaches, and overtraining6. Other factors might include injury and overprotective coaches and parents7.

The underlying symptom of burnout is stress. Watch out for this in your own kids if they present with signs of agitation, sleep disturbances, loss of interest in practice, depression, lack of energy, skin rashes, nausea, and frequent illness8,9.

4. Injury: Kid’s bodies are still under development. To put the demands of a collegiate or professional athlete on a child is not healthy.

The muscles, ligaments, and bones of children and adolescents are not fully developed, which can lead to potential injury with repetitive overuse.

There are countless injuries that can stem from overuse in young athletes, the most common of which are stress fractures10.

Young baseball pitchers are a common population that we tend to see get frequently injured. Due to their underdeveloped musculature, young pitchers are more predisposed to rotator cuff tendinitis, shoulder instability, and “Little League Shoulder”11,12,13.

I see a lot of young baseball pitchers in the clinic and this has proven to be true time and again – they tend to present with excessive shoulder motion and lack strength. For these kids to be throwing dozens of pitches without the proper support can wreak havoc on the shoulder.

This is just one example.

Which Kind of Athlete Do Colleges and Pro Teams Want?

If you think that specializing in one sport is the only way to develop enough skill to make it to an elite level, think again.

According to research by Tracking Football, 30 of the 32 first round picks in the 2017 NFL draft were multi-sport high school athletes.

Every single one of the top 20 picks played at least 2 highs school sports, while 14 of the 32 played 3 sports14.

Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer has reportedly said many times that he only recruits multi-sport athletes15.

So, when it comes to football, there’s really no question that it pays to be a multi-sport athlete.

What about Olympic athletes?

A Study of over 1500 German Olympic athletes found that elite Olympic athletes specialized later and were more likely to have participated in more than 1 sport over the age of 1116.

What about other college sports?

According to the NCAA17, here are some stats for sports with a high percentage of multi-sport athletes:

  • Football: 71% of division 1 men
  • Lacrosse: 88% of division 1 men, 83% of division 1 women
  • Runners: 87% of division 1 men, 91% of division 1 women

In contrast, here are some sports that athletes typically specialize in (all data taken after age 12):

  • Gymnastics: 87% of Division 1 women
  • Soccer: 68% of Division 1 men, 62% of Division 1 women
  • Tennis: 66% of Division 1 men, 75% of Division 1 women
  • Ice Hockey: 55% of Division 1 men

We could make the argument that a “skill” sport, such as tennis or gymnastics, may benefit an athlete who specializes, while a more “athletic” sport, such as football or running, would benefit a multi-sport athlete.

Suggestions For Your Child Athlete

Encourage kids to sample a number of different sports. Early sport sampling has been linked to a longer sport career and provides a range of experiences, coaches, and contexts, that allow kids to discover their talents.

Early sports should focus on ‘Deliberate Play’ which includes activities that are designed to maximize enjoyment, without the specific intent of improving performance. This type of play is intrinsically motivating for kids, provides instant gratification, and can help kids develop a range of skills that can help them later18.

Remember, the type of sport your child takes interest in makes a difference. Some studies suggest that early specialization is helpful in highly technical sports, such as rhythmic gymnastics, to achieve elite status19.

After the age of 13, kids should be given the choice of whether they want to specialize or play multiple sports.

According to many prominent studies, late specialization in a sport, older than 12 years of age, may result in better athletic achievement than early specialization20,21,22,23,24.

Once a child reaches the age of 16, it has been shown that they’ve developed enough physically and emotionally to handle the high demands of sport specialization25.

I’m not a sports psychologist and I’m not a pediatrician, but I am speaking from my own experience in treating hundreds of young athletes.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

A Physical Therapist can help screen young athletes for weaknesses and impairments they can improve on to be able to handle the demands of their sports, potentially preventing injury and improving performance.”

Question: Did you specialize in one sport growing up or play multiple sports? What was your experience? How about your kids? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

  1. DiFiori JP, et al. Overuse injuries and burnout in youth sports: a position statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. Clin J Sport Med. 2014;24(1):3-20. ↩︎
  2. Malina, RM. Early Sport Specialization: Roots, Effectiveness, Risks. Current Sports Medicine Reports. 2010. 364-371. ↩︎
  3. Feeley BT, et al. When is it too early for single sport specialization? Am J Sports Med. 2016;44(1):234-241. ↩︎
  4. American Academy of Pediatrics: Intensive training and sports specialization in youth athletes: Policy statement. Pediatrics. 2000;106:154-157. ↩︎
  5. Jayanthi N, et al. Sports specialization in young athletes: evidence-based recommendations. Sports health. 2013;5(3):251-257. ↩︎
  6. Malina, RM. Early Sport Specialization: Roots, Effectiveness, Risks. Current Sports Medicine Reports. 2010. 364-371. ↩︎
  7. Gould d, Dieffenback K. Psychological issues in youth sports competitive anxiety, overtraining, and burnout. In: Malina RM, Clark MA, editors. Youth Sports: Perspectives for a New Century. 2003. P. 149-70. ↩︎
  8. Gould d, Dieffenback K. Psychological issues in youth sports competitive anxiety, overtraining, and burnout. In: Malina RM, Clark MA, editors. Youth Sports: Perspectives for a New Century. 2003. P. 149-70. ↩︎
  9. Weinberg RS, Gould D. Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology. Champaign (IL): Human Kinetics; 1995. ↩︎
  10. Feeley BT, et al. When is it too early for single sport specialization? Am J Sports Med. 2016;44(1):234-241. ↩︎
  11. Gowan ID, et al. A comparative electromyographic analysis of the shoulder during pitching: professional versus amateur pitchers. Am J Sports Med. 1987;15(6):586-590. ↩︎
  12. Keeley DW, et al. A biomechanical analysis of youth pitching mechanics. J Pediatr Orthop. 2008;28(4):452-459. ↩︎
  13. Sabick MB, et al. Biomechanics of the shoulder in youth baseball pitchers: implications for the development of proximal humeral epiphysiolysis and humeral retrotorsion. Am J Sports Med. 2005;33(11):1716-1722. ↩︎
  14. Whalen T. Study: 30 of 32 NFL first-round picks were multi-sport high school athletes. USA Today. April 28, 2017. ↩︎
  15. Duffek, J. A few surprises in the data behind single-sport and multisport athletes. USA Today High School Sports. March 28, 2017. ↩︎
  16. Gullich A, Emrich E. Evaluation of the support of young athletes in the elite sports system. Eur J Sport Sci. 2006;13(3):85-108. ↩︎
  17. Duffek, J. A few surprises in the data behind single-sport and multisport athletes. USA Today High School Sports. March 28, 2017. ↩︎
  18. Berry J, Abernethy B, Cote J. The contribution of structured activity and deliberate play to the development of expert perceptual and decision-making skill. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology. 2008;30:685-708. ↩︎
  19. Hume PA, et al. Predictors of attainment in rhythmic sportive gymnastics. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 1994;33(4)367-377. ↩︎
  20. Barynina II, Vaitsekhovskii SM. The aftermath of early sports specialization for highly qualified swimmers. Fitness Sports Rev Int. 1992;27:132-133. ↩︎
  21. Carlson R. The socialization of elite tennis players in Sweden: an analysis of the players’ background and development. Social Sport J. 1988;5:241-256. ↩︎
  22. Lidor R, Lavyan A. A retrospective picture of early sport experiences among elite and near-elite Israeli athletes: development and psychological perspectives. Int J Sport Psychol. 2002;33:269-289. ↩︎
  23. Moesch K, et al. Late specialization: the key to success in centimeters, grams, or seconds (CGS) sports. Scan J Med Sci Sports. 2011;21(6):e282-e290. ↩︎
  24. Gullich A, Emrich E. Evaluation of the support of young athletes in the elite sports system. Eur J Sport Sci. 2006;13(3):85-108. ↩︎
  25. Gould, D. Early Sport Specialization. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance. 2010;81(8):33-37. ↩︎
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