More and more we are hearing a lot about kids specializing in one sport or one physical activity too early. Many problems can arise from this: burnout, overuse injuries, mental and emotional fatigue, dropout from activity, peaking too early, lower motivation and more. It’s clear that specializing too early is a bad idea. But what does “specializing” mean?
Specializing means doing one activity to the total exclusion of all other activities. Generally speaking, we are talking a very young age, usually about 5, 6, or 7 year olds. But I think that if we want a healthier society and more well-rounded athletes, this can be expanded even longer.
Often I hear coaches demanding that the athlete has to attend every practice, and if they miss one they cannot be on the team. I’m not sure this is the best approach.
Clara Hughes, one of the most decorated Canadian Olympians went to the Olympics for two sports: cycling and speed skating. I was reading an article about how these sports are similar so maybe it was easier to be involved in multiple sports because they helped each other, but if someone at the elite level can be take a multi sport approach, we shouldn’t be forcing our youth to be picking one sport.
I’ve also seen athletes switch from one sport to another and excel at it. One of my good friends was a really excellent synchro swimmer, she switched to swimming and is extremely good at it. Different sports often have a lot more in common than we think, and one sport can benefit performance in another.
At one point people are told to make a decision on which sport to be involved in. During high school I made the decision to stop curling and focus on swimming. I wasn’t going to become the best swimmer. Most people in sports will not be going to the Olympics or making national teams. I really don’t see the issue that coaches have with letting an athlete miss one practice a week to participate in another sport that they want to do.
Some of the benefits of a multi sport approach are:
Promoting positive youth development
Develops more creative players
Helps to prevent burnout
Helps to prevent injury
Increased pattern recall skills
Decreases dropout rates
Promotes intrinsic regulation
Improves cognitive skills
Improves decision making skills
Early sport diversification is linked to a longer sport career
How do we know how much is too much? When a child is playing one sport for 10-12 months, they are playing a lot of that sport. But, if they are doing other sports and activities at the same time, they may be getting a good balance, and not necessarily specializing (the danger here is burnout or risk of injury due to overtraining).
Sport sampling, instead of specialization can be a good approach. This makes sure they develop broad athleticism and a fundamental love of being active. Many studies are now showing that the athletes who were multi-sport at a younger age perform better in the long run. If a coach tries to tell you that your 7 year old is a natural born and needs more specialized coaching and training, do not take this advice. Concern yourself with making sure that your child engages with sport and activity early on. Make sure they play different sports before entering their teens and make as much of it as possible unstructured play (example: going to the playground).
If we want sport to have a social impact, whether small or large, we need to allow our youth to explore different sports. If we want people to be active for life, I think increasing physical literacy and awareness of other sports is a good thing. Now that I’ve retired from swimming, I find it hard to figure out what I want to do to stay healthy. I still really enjoy swimming, but often I don’t want to spend the one day I have off from coaching back at the pool. I also know swimmers who refuse to go anywhere near the pool now. I think an approach that my swim team could have had was instead of going to the gym three times a week, we could have had one day where we had a rotating circuit of other sports and played them. I think this would have been a good way to help expose athletes to other sports.
But how do we get coaches to change their attitude about allowing athletes to be involved in more than one sport? This is a hard question to answer. I think we need to focus on education and slowly by slowly coaches will understand the benefits of being involved in multiple sports.
I think to increase life-long participation in sports, we need to have more multi sport focused activities. This will have a social impact by exposing new options to athletes wondering where to go after they retire.
There are a lot of positives to a multisport life. I think one huge missed opportunity is gym class. This is an opportunity that I think is really wasted to expanding young people’s experiences with different sports. This should be a place where students have a chance to dabble with different sports. But I think sometimes (if not a lot of the time) gym class is a negative experience for many students. Gym class was a negative experience for myself, and it’s part of the reason why I never really got into other sports other than swimming. I think I would have enjoyed other sports more if I had done it with my swim team (a suggestion I made a little earlier). We should be focusing on policies and programs that can help increase inclusivity in gym class, and helping students enjoy gym class. We can have after school multi-sport programs that are excellent and we can make our sport teams more open to other sports, but gym class is one area that can be used more effectively.
Education policy can optimize gym class by creating a better system for teaching physical literacy and encouraging students to participate, not sit on the sidelines. The culture of gym class needs to change, I know many people who sat out because they did not want to participate. Not everyone has the same athletic abilities, and gym class needs to be a safe space for everyone to feel like they can participate in fun games.