Originally Published Jan 2018, Updated Nov 2020
For years, a debate has raged within the youth sports community about the pros and cons of having children specialize in a sport at a young age. Those on the “pro-specialize” side point to Earl Woods early focus on developing Tiger into the PGA champion that we see today. The “pro-multiple” side points out that in 2018, 29 of 32 NFL first round picks were multi-sports athletes, and that number was 30 of 32 in 2017. On one side, you have specialized youth sports organizations with a financial interest in sports specialization telling parents that specialization is the route to a college scholarship, and on the other side, there are medical professionals stating their alarm at the number of repetitive motion injuries they are seeing. Do both sides have a good point to be made? Can both be correct, and yet not correct for everyone?
Why Specialization in Youth Sports?
The example I used above about Tiger Woods sticks in the back of the mind of most parents, “Is my child good enough to play sports in college and collect scholarship money?” The financial incentives are enough for many parents to question what more they could do to give their child a competitive advantage. Within our professional worlds, specialist advance in their careers because they have advanced skills that been perfected over time and command a premium in the marketplace. So, it would make sense that if a parent believes their child to has the propensity to excel at a sport, that they would want the child to sharpen their seemingly advanced skills. Clearly, the benefits of specialization are that with continued focus, specialized skills are perfected. That essentially goes to the heart of the belief in 10,000 hours of practice written about by Malcolm Gladwell. And along with perfecting skills comes a confidence the athlete develops because they know they are performing at the highest levels. And youth sports organizations that specialize in single sports make it a sales point that they have connections within the college ranks and thus can open doors for your child.
Why Play Multiple Sports?
The statistics about first round NFL draft choices is very interesting. There are public quotes from coaches like Urban Meyer and Dabo Swinney say they will only recruit multisport athletes. The reasoning other coaches for only recruiting multi-sport athletes is that the athlete has been in multiple locker rooms, multiple different scenarios, and faced multiple different challenges. These coaches believe an athlete like this is prepared to take on unknown challenges and is thus a better teammate and leader. Those are the “soft skills” that are popular to talk about, but difficult to measure. Let’s look at something more quantitative…
Researchers from the University of California San Francisco tackled the topic of multiple sports play in a recently published a report titled “The Effects of Playing Multiple High School Sports on National Basketball Association Players’ Propensity for Injury and Athletic Performance” (A title you would only find in a research paper). The researchers studied the health and performance of 237 NBA athletes, noted those who were multisport athletes in high school, and those who played a single sport, and sought to find a statistical difference in health (injuries) and performance (play time and longevity).
The finding shows that the athletes who played multiple sports when they were younger suffered fewer major injuries (25% vs 43%), had an increase in the number of games they played, and a significantly longer career. (1)
Other benefits from playing multiple sports include:
- The development of other transferable skills. For example, if you play football, explosive power, eye/hand coordination, and quick foot work are highly prized. What other sport(s) are those skills also highly prized? Tennis and Lacrosse are two examples where those same skills are also prized and can be further developed in unique ways.
- Prevent Repetitive Injuries. Pediatricians are seeing a rising number of repetitive injuries directly related to sports specialization
- Avoid Burnout: A drawback of playing the same sport everyday is burnout. Doing the same thing everyday becomes a grind and a lot of kids drop out of sports when they specialize.
- Becoming an athlete for life: Multi-sport athletes continue to be active through the rest of their live.
If the goal for some parents is to get their child into a college program, then let’s talk about scholarships. According to the NCAA, there are approximately 180,000 athletic scholarship money today. (2) Only 2% of high school athlete are awarded scholarships. And the 180,000 is the total number of scholarships, the number given out each year is far smaller and is dependent upon graduation rates and budgets. And if your child will receive a “full scholarship”, i.e. the coverage of costs associated with tuition, fees, board, and books, you need to be aware that most athletes only receive scholarships that cover only a portion of these costs. There are only six sports in which you can receive a full scholarship: Football, Men’s Basketball, Women’s Basketball, Women’s Gymnastics, Tennis, and Volleyball. (3)
It is difficult not to feel compelled to do whatever you can to help your child succeed. The lure of potential free college tuition is enticing. And yet, does specialization offer the path to a college scholarship or is it an easy solution we’ve selected based on opinions and not facts? In my opinion, if you consider the long-term consequences of specialization and the odds that would need to be overcome, I think being a multi-sport athletics is a healthier alternative for kids.