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The Pros and Cons of Playing Multiple Sports

cross training

By Cierra Washington,ATC

Many people, parents and coaches in particular, believe that the earlier a child specializes in one sport, the greater their chances are to reach the elite level. According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), 480,000 out of 8 million (6%) of high school athletes move on to compete at the collegiate level, with roughly 3% being offered an athletic scholarship. Early specialization used to be believed as a key factor is succeeding at the elite level, but that opinion has been debunked. Dr. Neeru Jayanthi of Loyola University did a study of 1,200 youth athletes and found out that athletes who specialized in one sport early on were 70% to 93% more likely to be injured than children who played multiple sports.

Before the specialization period begins, sports diversification should be implemented. Sports diversification is the ability to play as many sports as often as possible to expose children to a multitude of sports with a focus on playing instead of practicing. The purpose of sport diversification is to decrease the time it takes to develop physical and cognitive abilities in a variety of sports. For instance, when a child plays baseball they are only learning hand-eye coordination pertaining to hitting and throwing. In contrast, a child who plays both baseball and soccer (sports diversification), can develop footwork, foot-eye coordination, running mechanics, as well as hand-eye coordination. When the athletes are participating in multiple sports between the ages of 6 and 12 those are considered sampling years, which gives the athlete the opportunity to develop their fundamental movement skills and experience a variety of environments. Some benefits of sport diversification include:

  • It doesn’t hinder elite participation in sports when that time has been reached
  • Being linked to a longer sports career, as well has positive implications for long-term sport involvement
  • Because the athlete participated in multiple sports during the younger years, it has allowed for the building of a solid foundation of motivation through enjoyable activities and established a range of motor and cognitive skills
  • Because the athlete has participated in multiple sports, they can begin to seek out their sport of primary interest

Sport specialization is now believed to be most beneficial after puberty, around ages 15 and 16. By this time the risks are minimal and the athlete is more likely to achieve long-term, higher level success. They are also more likely to tolerate the sport-specific training without injuries because their body has the ability to withstand the forces applied. Along with their bodies becoming more mature, their brain is also able to take in more of the sport and relay information as it applies to the sport to better their game playing and decision making skills.

multiple sports  multiple sports

Those choosing to specialize early, run the risk of:

  • Burnout: the psychological feeling of no longer having control over their life because of their lack of social life, lack of enjoyment and constant pressure to be great
  • Overuse and chronic injuries: due to the athlete repeatedly stressing the same joints and muscles without proper rest and recovery, leading to injury
  • Limits the development of transferable sport skills: such as decision making skills, the amount of time one has to make decisions can vary depending on which sport is being played, which means the athlete has to be able to switch their brain to make the pace of different game speeds
  • Increased stress level: the pressure to be great, from both themselves and others around them, can make the athlete devastated if they fail, and only focusing on getting better while neglecting other things in their life leading to an unhealthy imbalance

In conclusion, sports specialization can be very beneficial when looking to produce elite athletes, but only when incorporated at the optimal time of post-puberty. In the sampling years, ages 6-12, athletes should be given the option to participate in many sports to help them develop both mentally and physically to prepare themselves for sport-specific training in the upcoming years. Playing sports should be a competitive, yet enjoyable experience, so don’t push specializations too early. Let the kids enjoy!

Don’t let pain or injury sideline you from the activities you love. Call Loudoun Sports Therapy Center TODAY at 703-450-4300. 


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