Cleat Geeks

Early Specialization VS Multiple Sports

Specialize or Play Them All?

Is it better for a young athlete to play many sports throughout the calendar year, or specialize in only one?

CHILDREN-PLAYING-SPORTIt’s a question that is being asked more and more as club sports and travel teams pop up in seemingly every town from coast to coast. With them comes an array of questions, concerns, opportunities, and pressures. No matter the age of the athlete, these issues can weigh heavily on them and their families.

This article will examine a few of the facts surrounding athletic specialization, and attempt to serve as an educational exercise for those who may be facing the decision of whether to play multiple sports or narrow it down to just one.

What’s Your Goal?

Snow Canyon's Blake Ovard steals second base while Enterprise shortstop Tanner Laub waits for the throw to make the tag during the Utah State Little League Tournament Thursday, July 13, 2001. (Photo by Jud Burkett)

Research has convincingly shown that early specialization results in early success. In other words, if a ten-year old basketball player wants to be the best ten-year old basketball player he can be, his best course is to focus entirely on basketball. He will generally elevate his game above his peers who are spending their time playing a different sport every season.

There are many benefits that come from early success in a young athlete’s career:

  • Attention from higher level coaches and recruiters
  • Happiness from achieving success at an early age
  • Mental confidence in the sport
  •  Additional access to better teams and competition

The question then becomes, what is the long-term effect? Surely, most parents would not say that they want their child to “peak” in a sport while they are twelve years old. Likewise, young athletes desire a career path that continues to trend upward into the highest levels of the sport.

As firm as the science is on the matter of early specialization being beneficial for early success, it is just as solid that early specialization does not equal long-term success.

In fact, the effects of focusing solely on one sport from an early age can be very strongly negative in many cases when examined over a longer period of time.

There are many problems created by early sports specialization:

  • Increased rate of “burn out” in the sport
  • Higher incidence of injury due to excessive repetition
  • Narrower motor skill development
  • Decreased participation in sports as an adult
  • Social isolation

If the goal is to create the best youth player in a particular sport, then playing that sport and nothing but that sport is the best path. If the goal is to set a young athlete on the best course for long-term development both in a specific sport and in life, research indicates that playing multiple sports is a much better idea.
What About All The Practice It Takes?

kidssoccerOne of the arguments that is often made regarding early specialization of young athletes is that the sport requires a lot of practice and repetition. So much so in fact, that the only way to spend that much time is to devote the entire year to that one sport. To play a different sport after the season would be to take away the practice hours needed to achieve mastery.

On this count as well, research does not agree. Many studies have shown that participating in multiple sports decreases the amount of time it takes to master any one of them. In other words, it will take a baseball player much longer to become “high level” if he only plays baseball as opposed to playing multiple sports.

This is caused from a phenomenon called skill transfer. Skill transfer is when training in one area promotes and benefits training in another area. This is perhaps the most convincing argument that can be made in the debate of specialization or multiple sport participation.

Skill transfer applies to many different areas:

  • Decision making
  • Movement patterns
  • Strategy
  • Physical conditioning

All of these areas of a young athlete’s development will be made stronger by playing multiple sports in comparison to only playing one.

Your Career Is A Resume

Let’s be honest, one of the biggest reasons why the choice is made to specialize in a sport early on is the promise of attention, exposure, better coaching, and perhaps even scholarships or professional careers. Club teams are very good at selling their product as something that an athlete needs to do in order to have a shot at making it to the top.

The question then is, what do college coaches and professional recruiters prefer to see on a player’s resume? Are they looking for a kid who specialized early on and focused solely on the sport they’re looking to play in college, or are they looking for all around athletes who played many sports growing up?

Patrick-MurphyWe asked Alabama’s Head Softball Coach Patrick Murphy that exact question, and he had this to say in response:

“I think it’s in the best interest of the athlete to play additional sports growing up. I’ve seen too many injuries due to specialization at an early age. There are many positive social aspects as well when playing multiple sports.”

In just a few words, a man who recruits athletes for a living and has had an incredible amount of success at the college level (2012 National Champions, 5 time SEC Champions), summarized very nicely the precise reasons why early specialization may not be the best route.
Is It Just About Sports?

You’ll notice throughout this article that there are many individual traits mentioned in research that aren’t directly athletic. Words such as “social isolation” or “decision making” should jump out at the reader as qualities of life as much as sport.

It should never get lost in all of these back and forth arguments that we are dealing with young people and not just young athletes. In another interview we conducted for this article, the Head Pitching Coach for the University of Georgia, Fred Corral, brought this aspect of the debate into clearer focus:

coachCorral“Each sport brings about different aspects of character, with all having the end result of which to grade your efforts.

For those that do specialize in a single sport they have to be aware of possible outcomes and address the precursors to them, such as burnout and the inability to handle adversity. Things that multiple sport athletes will come about competing for their positions and holding them. Multiple sport athletes learn different things. Different ways to work with teammates for a common goal. Employers seek to hire athletes for this very reason.

Life is more than sport…”

It is very telling that a coach who has dedicated his every waking hour professionally to studying pitching and coaching baseball players, feels so strongly about kids playing multiple sports. He’s seen the benefits, he knows the character that it builds, and he values the quality that it adds to life, every bit as much as sport.

It’s Not For Everybody

We would never pretend that any of our articles would pertain to every single person reading it or participating in organized sports. There are many individual cases and unique people that will not fit the research models.

In our business, we see many athletes who choose to specialize in baseball. In fact, we work with many of them all year long. It is, after all, the athlete’s choice. If they want to work on baseball all year, we will be there to work with them.

kidshockeyThe one huge difference here however, is that we don’t play baseball year round. We vary the training, we give their arms a two month break from throwing, we focus on strength and overall conditioning for several months at a time, and we allow the athlete to completely ignore baseball for long periods of time.

While many athletes don’t desire to play soccer in the fall or basketball in the winter, it is critical that they are able to participate in a varied and multi-pronged training approach that does not include playing one sport for ten months a year. 

For those athletes reading this article who are already specializing or who are considering it, this piece of advice is very important.

For some people, there simply is no passion to be found in other endeavors. They don’t have any interest in other sports, and simply prefer to stick with the only one they truly love. Coach Corral calls this the “only reason why one should specialize”, and we agree.  Just be careful that the “only one you love” doesn’t become a job, or passion for it can also be lost quickly.

The issue of whether to specialize early on or be a multi-sport athlete is a big one, and there are many more aspects to it than we will discuss in this article.  We encourage athletes and their families to lean toward playing multiple sports throughout the year, and to stay tuned to Cleat Geeks and Baseball Brains for further installments on this subject.

Thanks for reading, and a special thanks to Coach Patrick Murphy and Coach Fred Corral for their insight.

 

 

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  1. Pingback: Early Specialization vs. Multiple Sports - Baseball Brains

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