Playing multiple sports vs. playing only one sport has been a hot topic of debate for quite a few years. My opinion has never wavered. I think young athletes should avoid early specialization and enjoy some variety. Playing more than one sport has a lot of benefits, two of the biggest being that it reduces both the risk of overuse injuries and early burnout.
But the reality is, we’re seeing fewer and fewer multi-sport athletes, and here are some reasons why:
- Clubs are plentiful, and the coaches and owners profit when kids play one sport all year long.
- The trophy kid phenomenon. The pervasive attitude of many parents is: “My child needs to be the best student, the best musician, the best athlete, etc.” To this end, a greater emphasis is placed on trying to do one sport to the best of their ability.
- College scholarships. Parents feel that getting a piece of the scholarship pie requires specialization.
- Fewer pickup games. Gone are the days when kids stayed in the neighborhood with their friends and played whatever sport was in season, meeting at the schoolyard or park, choosing sides and playing sandlot games. Now, most everything is organized, and young players are often driven by their parents to gyms or fields miles away from their own homes to play for clubs that, in theory, will better their chances to excel.
From my viewpoint, a lot of this specialization – not necessarily all of it – does more harm than good. Here are some benefits that I see to having diversity on a young athlete’s sports calendar:
- It helps develop different skill sets, muscles and movement patterns, which leads to a more well-rounded and versatile athlete.
- As I mentioned earlier, it reduces the chance of burnout. No matter how much young players enjoy a certain sport, at some point they’re all likely to suffer from the too-much-of-a-good-thing syndrome. Change is refreshing, both physically and mentally.
- More opportunity to learn how to compete with different teammates and coaches. Adjusting to varying coaching styles and a diversity of personality types is useful not only in sports but life. Bottom line: Teamwork is important in anything you do, and if you aren’t able to connect with people who have different ideas than you do, success becomes much more difficult.
- By trying more than one sport, you’ll have a better chance of finding one or two that you can play your entire life. This is a big key to long-term health.
As I’m sure you’re aware, most kids are not going to play in college. Statistics tell us that only 3% of high school athletes will participate in a varsity sport at the collegiate level, and only 1% will get a full-ride scholarship. And the number of those athletes who will play professionally is miniscule. According to the NCAA, only 1 in 6,000 high school athletes will make it to the pros – let alone have a career.
With this in mind, my message to players, parents and coaches is simple: your first priority is to enjoy sports and reap the many gains that come from participation. A very select few may benefit at some point in their careers from specialization. For everybody else, broadening your sports experience is the way to go.
Terry Liskevych, who retired last year as the head women’s coach at Oregon State and is one of the founders of The Art of Coaching Volleyball, coached the U.S. women’s national team at three Olympics, including 1992, when they won a bronze medal in Barcelona.