Youth sports participation is on the rise. With this increase in numbers has come in an increase in the competitive nature of travel teams, club teams and similar outfits.
While this isn’t necessarily bad on its merits, there is something to consider: Often, this leads to an athlete specializing in a sport year-round. But is only playing one sport throughout the year, and dropping others to do so, a good idea?
That decision is ultimately up to the athlete and family – and can come with enormous pressure (real or perceived).
Here are three things to think about if you are considering specializing in a sport year-round.
1. Coaches Often Prefer Multi-Sport Athletes
In a great piece on this subject, Change the Game Project has pulled some interesting notes from respected coaches like Ohio State Football head coach Urban Meyer and Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll.
The message is that multi-sport athletes are not only the norm (42 of Ohio State football recruits were multi-sport athletes in high school), but encouraged.
Said Pete Carroll: “I really, really don’t favor kids having to specialize in one sport. Even [at USC], I want to be the biggest proponent for two-sport athletes on the college level. I want guys that are so special athletically, and so competitive, that they can compete in more than one sport.”
Similarly, athletes at the top of their craft seem to follow suit. In USA Today, a piece on the World Cup Champion U.S. Women’s Soccer Team, it is noted that 14 of the players on the team were multi-sport athletes.
Star Abby Wambach in the piece credited basketball for some of her success: “Playing basketball had a significant impact on the way I play the game of soccer,” she said. “I am a taller player in 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.”
If the goal of specialization is to play a sport at the collegiate level or become elite in that sport, it is interesting to note the opinions of those in those positions.
2. Law of Diminishing Returns
One of the main ideas behind playing a sport year-round is to master the movements, techniques and skills needed to play that sport at a high level.
However, while the only way to get better at something is to do it, studies suggest there are diminishing returns to specializing year-round.
One of the major arguments is that it can be easier to develop better motor skills and become a better decision-maker by playing multiple sports.
So while it’s helpful and true that practice makes perfect, remember there is room to practice multiple sports to develop as a better overall athlete.
3. Burnout/Injury Risk
There are countless scientific studies (like here and here) on this subject that suggest that early sports specialization can not only increase overuse injury risks, but can lead to a lack of motivation.
Said another way: If you play the same sport year round, the joy of playing may get sucked out, and you may be more likely to drop the sport entirely.
While ultimately these decisions are ones that need to be made on a case-by-case basis, is wise to consider factors like these before committing to specialization!