There are a lot of debates in youth sports; the value of participation awards, the success of co-ed teams, the effectiveness of the mercy rule and more. But the last decade or so has led to a new debate in youth sports: early specialization versus multi-sports. Should a young player commit to one sport year round or is it better to try a different sport each season?
Well a 2013 American Medical Society for Sports Medicine survey found that 88% of college athletes surveyed participated in more than one sport as a child, so parents that think specialization is the only way to get on a college team are very wrong! In fact, many college coaches like to see athletes that have played other sports because it shows they are a well-rounded athlete and can handle different teams and coaches without losing focus. Obviously at some point most athletes have to pick one sport to dedicate themselves to, but that doesn’t need to dictate their entire youth sports experience!
A study by Ohio State University found that children who specialized early in a single sport led to higher rates of adult physical inactivity. Those who commit to one sport at a young age are often the first to quit, and suffer a lifetime of consequences. With a huge percentage of youth athletes quitting sports by the time they are 13, clearly something is amiss. Even if they aren’t playing at a highly competitive level, why do so many children give up on the “fun” level of intramurals or just casual play? Burnout and overuse injuries push kids into quitting long before we’d like. In fact, Loyola University found that athletes who specialized were 70% to 93% more likely to be injured than children who played multiple sports!
Many proponents of early specialization use the 10,000 hour rule to argue their case: you need to spend 10,000 hours doing something to truly master it. But in The Sports Gene, author David Epstein finds that most elite competitors require far less than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Specifically, studies have shown that basketball (4000), field hockey (4000) and wrestling (6000) all require far less than 10,000 hours. A 2003 study on professional hockey players found that while most pros had spent 10,000 hours or more involved in sports prior to age 20, only 3000 of those hours were involved in hockey specific deliberate practice (and only 450 of those hours were prior to age 12).
Youth sports researchers Jean Cote and Jessica Fraser-Thomas argue that at no youth athlete should play one sport all year round. While they recommend that “athletes in sports whose competitors peak after age 20 need to accumulate around 10,000 hours of general sports participation, no more than half of that needs to be deliberate practice of their chosen sport.” An even when specialization becomes very important (they argue this is 16+), 20% of training time should still be in the non-specialized sport and deliberate play.
Yet even with all these numbers, many parents still push for their children to specialize in one sport. Kirk Anderson, Director of Coaching Education for the US Tennis Association made a really interesting point;
Even if parents and coaches know and understand age-appropriate principles for children, I think they would be reluctant to accept them because they would fear their child would fall behind the kid in a more structured program that focuses on training, competition and deliberate practice.
Do you believe that being a multi-sport athlete is the way to go or is playing one sport year round the only way to athletic success?