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Play More Sports, Not a Sport More.

By: Coach Ryan

I want to start this conversation by saying my wife and I only have one kid and he is not even 2 years old. So this isn't something I have dealt with (yet) as a parent. But it is something we have dealt with as athletes and, a ton, as a coaches (both as sports coaches and Strength Coaches). Anecdotally, my wife and I were scholarship collegiate athletes. We did not grow up playing only one sport. We had a pretty diverse activities background and also were allowed to "be kids" and climb trees, ride our bikes a mile away to a friend's house, and do other kid things. We have worked with many kids that earn scholarships and/or are professional athletes, so while anecdotes don't always do a great job of accurately nailing situations, I wanted to say that we do have some experience and credibility on the subject matter.

Your kid (especially any kid younger than high school) should not be playing only one sport if they have dreams of being successful and continuing their careers past high school. To phrase it differently, you are doing your child a disservice by having them specialize in a sport at 10 years old. You're hurting their chances of playing at the next level, not helping (like I am sure you think you are). Obviously I am not saying you're a bad person or anything like that, I am just highlighting that you might have a misunderstanding of how athletics, specifically elite athletics, work.  

Let me give you a few "for instances":

  • 26 out of the 31 1st Round draft picks in the NFL this year played multiple sports in high school. That's about 84%.
  • To further that, 224 of out the total 256 draft picks in this year's NFL draft played more than 1 high school sport. That's 87.5%.
  • A sport specialization survey done at UCLA surveying 296 Division 1 athletes found that 88% of them played multiple sports.
  • Anecdotally, I have coached (Strength Coach) with one of the best team sport athletes on planet earth. He played multiple sports up until he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at the age of 16. He then stopped playing other sports. I also coach an athlete that was taken very high in the MLB draft. His brothers look like they will be collegiate scholarship soccer players. They grew up in the same house and didn't specialize until they were a little older.

I understand that to be great at a sport, you need time (10,000 hours) to develop the sport specific skills. However, if your athlete specializes early they start to move in very specific movement patterns that can lead to a higher prevalence of injuries. NFL/NCAA Strength Coach Joe Kenn talks about guys coming to him in college as scholarship athletes and they cannot perform one proper push up. If you play a sport that involves pushing giant strong people around and don't have the correct mobility/kinesthetic awareness/positional strength to do a standard push up, you are in a prime position to get injured (and to not be nearly as good at the sport). And he says it isn't like he saw one kid that was like this, it is dozens of them.

Additionally, learning how to move your body in a variety of movement patterns will make it easier to learn the specific ones in a sport. The more tools you have in the tool box, the better chance you have to set yourself up for success. This is one reason I think CrossFit is the single best training modality on the planet (for people wanting to have a bigger tool box). If your athlete really isn't interested in other sports, have them do CrossFit. They will be exposed to a range of training modalities that will broaden their athletic horizons, make them stronger and faster, and help prevent injuries.

Lastly, I have seen so many great XYZ players be "done" with their sport by the time they would be going to college. So they don't want to play college XYZ. And that's ok (their decision is ok, not that being burned out by 18 is ok). But as parents, you are in a position to safeguard that. One easy way to do that is to not let your 7 year old play on 4 softball teams that go year round. Your kid might even want to do that. Your job is to say, "No." Help them find other things to be interested in. Even if they can't find a sport to play, just having time off during the year is crucial. Professional athletes have off time. Off time. Time they are not doing anything related to that sport. Your 7 year old can afford some off time if athletes making 10's of millions of dollars a year can afford it. Also, to further this point, being an all-star 7 year old softball player has, almost, zero bearing on being a collegiate softball player. Until puberty, all bets are off on who will be great athletes vs. good athletes vs. mediocre athletes. Some of the best 10 year old kids I played sports against couldn't make our high school team. I was a mediocre athlete until 8/9th grade and then grew into being a college scholarship level athlete. So burn out is real. And, for the most part, talent identification in a specific sport doesn't happen until they start becoming their "full grown" size.

I understand there are probably some parents out there that wouldn't be happy to read this. (And they have stopped reading by now if that's them, I am sure.) If you feel like I am stepping on your toes a little, let me try and ease that a little. You don't know what you don't know. And I am sure your decisions were made with your athlete's best interest at heart. So you are doing your best as a parent and that is rad. To show that I am not making this stuff up, I am attaching some journal articles below (from scientific journals). Most people don't casually read scientific journals, so I tried to distill many of the points made in these research studies down to a more "readable" format. But if you want to dig in, here you go (these will open in a new window):

Sport Specialization in Young Athletes

Early Single-Sport Specialization: A Survey of 3090 High School, Collegiate, and Professional Athletes

Sport Specialization, Part I: Does Early Sports Specialization Increase Negative Outcomes and Reduce the Opportunity for Success in Young Athletes? (Scroll down to see the article)

 

Regardless of what you decide to do with this information, I appreciate you being invested in your child's life. If specializing early is the route you go, try finding other things (like CrossFit) to give your athlete some balance without that being other sports. Additionally, breaks aren't a bad thing and it might be nice to take a family trip one weekend instead of spending your 145th consecutive weekend at the ball field!