Youth sport participation is growing around the globe, and the increasing trend is to have youth athletes specialize in one just one sport. With the goal obviously being to maximize a kid’s potential to play in college/pros/olympics, parents are having their kids spend 20+ hours working on very specific skill sets, going to countless camps, and squeezing out every last opportunity by playing on multiple teams in a single season. On the surface, it's easy to see why parents would think this… ”to get better at basketball, play more basketball." However, let's take a deeper look as to why this may not be not be the best (nor safest) route to making your kid the next Michael Jordan.
Playing multiple sports makes you more competitive
Weather your goals are set on college or the pros, top recruiters are looking for the most competitive athletes they can find...regardless of sport.
Want to play baseball? Check in to what Scott Upp, the leader of a baseball program that has been ranked as high as number one in the country and has more than 35 IHSAA sectional baseball championships, has to say. “If there are coaches out there that are telling kids to play one sport, I think they’re crazy,” Upp said. “Because while you’re working on drills and everything else like that, he’s out competing...running from 6’2”, 280-pound linemen. He’s trying to get away and make plays. So he’s competing, and you can’t really substitute that. And basketball, with time winding down, he’s got the ball in his hands, he’s learning how to compete. And all those things that happen in other sports just make him that much better in baseball.”
What about soccer? Abby Wambach, a member of the 2015 US Women’s World Cup team, is known is the best header in sport history, and guess what she attributes her success to...basketball. “Playing basketball had a significant impact on the way I play the game of soccer," Wambach 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." In fact, when the 2015 Women’s World Cup Champions were surveyed, they had collectively competed in more than 14 different sports growing up in addition to soccer.
Dreams of playing in a College Football National Championship Game? Clemson’s Head football coach, Dabo Swinney, who continuously has his team in playoff contention and won a national championship in 2016 famously recruites multisport athletes and had this to say about them. “I just think that the cross-training, the different types of coaching, the different types of locker rooms, the different environments that you practice in, the different challenges — I think it develops a much more competitive, well-rounded type person”
Playing multiple sports makes you more athletic
This one gets a little touchy...your kid has the best hands on his middle school football team, so naturally he needs to go to every SEC camp available and work year-round to improve his route running; right? Or, your daughter is the tallest on her 7th grade volleyball team so of course she's going to play year-round club volleyball to perfect her swing; right? Sure...practicing a skill is important, but the data doesn’t lie and improving overall athletic ability trumps all.
Demarco Murray, one of the most decorated running backs in Oklahoma who also led the NFL in rushing yards in 2014, didn’t seal his fate with Oklahoma until the coach watched him dunk a basketball during a game. Sam Bradford played basketball, football, golf, and hockey all throughout his high school and then went on to be a heisman trophy winner and number 1 overall NFL draft pick. In fact, 91% of the athletes drafted in the 2018 first round of the NFL played multiple sports in high school and 96% of the players who played in last years superbowl were multi-sports athletes!
However, the impact on athletic development goes well beyond the NFL and football. For example, a study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine looked at first found draft picks from 2008-2015 and found that athletes who played multiple sports in high school played in more NBA games, had a lower significant injury rate, and had more longevity in the spoty. The exposure to different athletic and movement demands, especially as an adolescent has been well documented in countless studies to have a strong carry over effect into your primary sport. The reason is simple, when you limit yourself to a single sport at a young age, the lack of diversified activity may stunt neuromuscular control development, leading decreased overall athletic ability.
Playing multiple sports decreases your risk of injury.
I’m a doctor of physical therapy, so I may be a little biased, but I’ve saved the best for last as a reason for playing multiple sports as a youth athlete. I don’t care how skilled your kid is, how physically gifted they are, they will never reach their full athletic potential if they can’t stay healthy and on the field and specializing into one sport has been shown time and time again to increase your risk of injury.
Think about this, only 65% of athletes report returning to their previous level of play 1 year after an injury and up to 20% of elite athletes say an injury is what caused them to stop playing their sports. When you specialize into a single sport at an early age you’re risking increased exposure to repetitive technical skills and high risk mechanics, Over-scheduling leads to decreased time to recover from competition and early psychological burnout, all of which have demonstrated to statistically increase your risk of injury.
So in review, let kids be kids. Don’t force their hands by specializing at an early age. Let them become a more competitive, athletic, and healthy athlete by playing in multiple sports.
Thanks for reading,
Dr. Danny and Dr. Jackie's views on performance improvement, injury prevention and sometimes other random thoughts.