In the world of youth athletics, there is a tendency to forget that sports are meant to be fun. Sometimes, the prospect of a child becoming a professional athlete has led parents to encourage their children to specialize in a single sport at a young age. However, recent studies have shown that athletes who compete in a variety of sports are in fact more likely to compete at an elite level than those who specialized in a single sport.
At True North Sports Camps, we are strong proponents of introducing children to a wide array of sports. As explained by our Director of Programming, Jonathan Isaac:
Understanding the importance of being exposed to a number of different sports for young athletes was one of the main reasons why we branched out from baseball to establish our flag football, basketball, soccer and multi-sport camps.
The 3 main benefits of multi-sport participation:
Developing Physical Literacy
The #1 benefit of multi-sport participation is the development of physical literacy skills. Learning fundamental movements and coordination at a young age is critical to an athlete’s development. By practicing fundamental movement skills – such as running, throwing, and catching - children gain the confidence and ability to participate in a variety of physical activities. Multi-sport participation helps ensure that athletes are exposed to sports that require different movements and motor skills. For example, basketball stresses the importance of footwork and jumping whereas baseball focuses on throwing and catching. According to a 2012 study in the Journal of Sports Sciences, "athletes who participated in multiple sports were found to be more physically fit, have better gross motor coordination, more explosive strength, and better speed and agility than those who specialized..."
Reducing the Risk of Injury
Playing multiple sports also helps reduce the risk of injuries. A recent study from the University of Wisconsin concluded that “high school athletes who specialize in a single sport sustain lower-body injuries at much higher rates than athletes who compete in multiple sports”. By using different muscles and practicing different movements, athletes can reduce the likelihood of injuries caused by overuse.
In addition to the physical risks, specialization can also have psychological impacts. Most notably, by training too intensely in one sport year-round, parents create a professional atmosphere for kids too early in life. In some instances, this leads to burnout, as athletes no longer enjoy the game and drop out of competitive sports. Playing different sports allows athletes to have a mental break from a particular team, coach and training program.
When is the right time to specialize?
Of course, some degree of sports specialization is necessary to develop elite level skills. However, intense training in a single sport should be delayed until late adolescence to minimize injury, emotional stress and burnout.
Active for Life ("AFL") is a not-for-profit organization created to promote physical literacy. To help understand how kids should develop as athletes, AFL created the Long-Term Athlete Development model:
- Stage 1: Active Start (0-6 years)
- Stage 2: FUNdamentals (girls 6-8, boys 6-9)
- Stage 3: Learn to Train (girls 8-11, boys 9-12)
- Stage 4: Train to Train (girls 11-15, boys 12-16)
- Stage 5: Train to Compete (girls 15-21, boys 16-23)
- Stage 6: Train to Win (girls 18+, boys 19+)
- Stage 7: Active for Life (any age participant)
For more information, we encourage you to visit Active for Life’s website: http://activeforlife.com/multisportadvantage
What can I do as a parent?
Never forget that first and foremost, sports are meant to be fun! Encourage your kids to participate in as many sports as possible, especially at a young age, so they can figure out what they like. For example, suggest playing a new sport each season, as opposed to only one sport year-round. Or Try signing them up for a multi-sport camp! Support the diversification of their athletic interests and cheer them on like crazy; it will give them a better chance at success when the time is right to specialize.