Single-sport prioritization; that is, focusing your energy fully on mastering the techniques of just one discipline, has for decades been the accepted way to achieve greatness. Everyone knows the old adage, “Practice makes perfect”. However, while that concept may lead to A’s in mathematics and science, it doesn’t bode so well in sports.

Indeed, at schools across North America, coaches regularly advise parents to place their young children in specialized programs for thousands of hours of structured practice. This is especially so for all of the major franchised sports, from football and baseball to hockey and basketball. There’s a constant underlying fear that if kids don’t focus on just one, they could be ‘passed over’ when the time comes for high school and college team selection. This fallacy is exacerbated by profiteering specialists and sports organizations who push continuous participation in their courses to meet the tough standards of ‘player development pipelines’. Often too, the fear of failure is a result of parents’ own personal inadequacies during their school years – lost opportunities and hopes that they inadvertently transfer to their kids. It’s a vicious cycle that doesn’t end well.

Now, more and more experts are coming to the conclusion that single-sport prioritization, especially for children and young teens, may in fact have some major physical and emotional consequences, and should be avoided if at all possible. Indeed, there have been several studies that clearly demonstrate how single sport specialization can hurt your children.

  • Take for example the research on 1200 young athletes conducted by Dr. Neeru Jayanthi, the president of the International Society for Tennis Medicine and Science. In a research paper entitled “Training and Specialization Risks in Junior Elite Tennis Players”, he detailed that those particular kids who specialized in a single sport were up to 93% more likely to be injured than those who played several different sports.
  • Another study at Ohio State University on the lifestyles of sedentary young adults found a commonality among test subjects; a huge proportion had specialized in a single sport at a young age. The implication is that those who practice just one sport in youth are more likely to quit sports altogether, due to loss of interest, stress, or even burnout. They eventually succumb to unhealthy lifestyles.

So what can parents do to ensure their children make the grade? Top sports medicine specialists are recommending physical literacy; that is, a basic fluidity with the movements of all sports; running, jumping, throwing, kicking, catching, etc. Armed with the basics, children are more likely to get involved in more sports, more likely to have fun, and more likely to build all-important personal confidence. At the end of the day, there is very little research supporting sports specialization, but a truckload of solid data behind physical literacy.

Here’s a good article that explains physical literacy in more detail.

If you’re still not sure, here are a few more facts to consider:

  • 5% of the 2015 NFL draft picks (224 out of 256) played multiple sports in high school. 63% of those picks were involved in track and field, half played basketball, and one of ten even played baseball.
  • A 2013 study by the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine found that almost 90% of college athletes came from a background that preferred multi-sport training.
  • Anders Ericsson, the researcher widely credited with birthing the 10,000 hour rule (the idea that kids need 10,000 hours of practice to acquire elite status) says his work was taken out of context and misrepresented by the popular book, Outliers, which made it famous. Indeed, he says the idea that athletes deliberately focus on one sport is, “entirely wrong”.

In general, while professionals do recommend that youth with a future plan of elite performance engage in 10,000 hours of practice, that workload should be split up across at least a few sports of interest. Indeed, under the age of 12, young athletes should spend no more than 20% of their time actually engaged in their specialized sport. The other 80% of their time should be spread across sports of a varied nature. Between ages 13 and 15, the ratio should flip to 50/50, and once they hit 16 years old, they should be focusing no more than 80% on the single sport.

In conclusion, the evidence is clear that parents should be supportive and encouraging, pushing their kids to enjoy various different sports from a young age. It’s a question of keeping youth interested and engaged across the long haul, and minimizing the risk of overuse injuries that would otherwise end their careers before they truly begin.

About the Author

Matthew Korobanik is a partner of multiple Anytime Fitness franchises. For more information, check out http://www.healthyedmonton.com

In Edmonton, Anytime Fitness has two locations for your convenience:

Old Strathcona, (10469-80 Ave.) and Kingsway, (10521 Kingsway Ave.)