Imagine for a moment that you're a teenage athlete. You’ve loved sports as long as you can remember, and squeeze in as many as you can: Football in the fall, basketball in the winter, baseball in the spring and summer. The problem, at least in the eyes of some of the adults in your life, is that your love is too promiscuous. You feel constant pressure to pick just one.
Your football coach wants you and your teammates to spend your offseason loading the barbell like powerlifters and filling cafeteria trays like sumo wrestlers. The local AAU coach wants you to play basketball on his team through the spring and summer, making you more accessible to college recruiters. And the hitting instructor your father hired wants you to play baseball year-round: high school in the spring, travel teams in the summer, and showcases in the fall and winter.
Now imagine instead that you're the parent of a kid who’s good at just about anything he or she tries. On the one hand, it’s every dad’s dream to watch your son or daughter play hard and not just enjoy the experience, but dominate the competition. On the other, you’re hearing a steady stream of advice from coaches, trainers, college recruiters, and perhaps even pro scouts. “Your kid is good, but if Jack/Jackie doesn’t focus on one sport, he/she is going to fall behind.” (Make it a win-win-win situation for you, your child, and the team when coaching your kid in sports.)
And there goes that scholarship you were counting on when you tithed 10 percent of your income on camps, travel teams, and private coaches. So should you push your kid to focus on his or her best sport, and train for it year-round?
“Parents are constantly asking me that question,” says John Graham, CSCS, who runs St. Luke's Sports and Human Performance Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania. “I’ve always endorsed kids playing multiple sports. It's better for them from a physiological standpoint. The kids who play multiple sports become better athletically.”
Graham speaks from both personal and professional experience. For the past three decades, he’s trained athletes in just about every individual and team sport. On any given day at St. Luke’s, you might see him training tiny 8-year-old gymnasts, massive pro football players, or anything in between.
Before that, he lettered in three sports in high school -- football, basketball, track -- and also played rec-league baseball in the summer. He believes that broad foundation helped him earn a football scholarship to Pitt in the early 1980s. "I tell parents I don’t think I would've been capable of playing at that level if I hadn’t played multiple sports.” (Train your kids to be successful young athletes with good coaching and guidance. Learn the 3 Ways to Spot a 'Friday Night Tykes' Coach.)
Kids and parents alike can be seduced by the success of the outlier. There’s Lionel Messi, the world’s best soccer player, who was more or less a pro at 11 years old. (He needed expensive medical treatments, which his current team, Barcelona, offered to provide if he joined their youth program.) There’s Tiger Woods, who hit golf balls on The Mike Douglas Show when he was just 2, won his first tournament at 8, and was ranked No. 1 in the world at 21. More recently, there’s Bryce Harper, who started his baseball career as a 3-year-old playing T ball against kids twice his age, and who regularly played more than 100 travel-team games a summer before he was drafted first overall in 2010 and signed a contract that guaranteed him $9 million.
Given those examples, most of us assume an athlete who wants to reach the highest level should focus on that goal from the earliest possible age, and pursue it to the exclusion of everything else.
You'd think that's the message athletes get at Cressey Sports Performance in Hudson, Massachusetts. In the 2014 baseball draft, 18 of the 1,215 players selected trained with owner Eric Cressey and his coaches, including six of the top 100. If any facility stands as a shrine to sports specialization, it should be this one. But Cressey says the truth is the opposite.
“You rarely see someone who played only baseball all the way through go on to have a successful career in the big leagues,” he says, noting that you have to be a good athlete before you can be a good baseball player. (What makes a successful parent? Discover how your mistakes will affect your children in ways you can't anticipate and avoid the 6 Easy Ways to Screw Up Your Kids .)
Some of the athletes he trains start off as just that -- the best in any sport they pursue. But not all.
"I'm constantly amazed at how many late bloomers" develop into successful college players, and eventually become pro prospects, he says. “They weren’t great athletes at a young age, but that broad range of abilities made it possible for them to become great in a specific sport.”
Lack of athletic development isn’t the only risk of early specialization. "We know it leads to more injuries," Cressey says. “The more kids play, the more they get hurt before they turn 18."
A 2012 review in Sports Health notes that young pitchers who throw more than 100 innings per year have 3.5 times more injuries than those who pitch less. And pitchers who throw more than eight months a year are five times more likely to require elbow or shoulder surgery.
Baseball is hardly alone. In any sport, the review says, “increased exposure was the most important risk factor for injury.” The more an athlete trains and competes in a sport, and the higher the competitive level, the greater the risk.
Athletes may be most vulnerable during “peak height velocity” -- that is, the middle of their biggest growth spurt. That's when the risk of fractures is highest. Boys typically hit that peak between 12 and 16, while for girls it's between 9 and 13. (What is the Secret to Athletic Success? Stop comparing your kids to others.)
Competitive athletes aren’t the only ones at risk. My son, for example, grew six inches in about six months when he was 14. Near the end of that growth spurt he went on a weeklong, 50-mile backpacking trip with his Boy Scout troop. He complained of knee pain for years afterwards.
NOT ALL CHOICES ARE GOOD CHOICES
For all the downsides to early specialization, there are certainly times when it’s the best and perhaps only option. Sports that challenge balance in unique ways and require complex timing --gymnastics, figure skating, diving, and perhaps skiing -- require an early start. Kids have to get in by kindergarten or first grade to have any hope of reaching elite levels. Those are also some of the most expensive and demanding sports for both parents and athletes, which further limits the field.
Female golfers and tennis players also tend to commit to those sports when most kids are still learning to tie their own shoes.
In other situations, a kid simply may not want to play more than one sport. “If an athlete truly finds a pure passion, I have no issues with the athlete playing just that one sport, even at a young age,” says Lee Taft, CSCS, owner of Sports Speed, Etc., in New Castle, Indiana.
The athletic qualities they miss out on by focusing on one sport can be developed in a good training program, Taft says. “As coaches, we can use warmups, off-season, and pre-season to generalize workouts.”
Another reason to specialize: to mitigate injury risk. Graham offers an example: Aaron Gray, a 7-foot-tall basketball star, also played football in high school. “By his junior year, he worried he might get injured if he kept playing football,” Graham says. Focusing on basketball was the more prudent course, and it seems to have worked: Gray, a defense-and-rebounding specialist, has spent seven years in the NBA after four years in college.
The same might also apply to a slightly built baseball player, Graham adds. The larger his athletic portfolio, the greater his risk of a career-ending injury.
Yet another risk, Cressey notes, comes with being the guy we all wished we could be in high school: the star quarterback who’s also a star pitcher. He could end up throwing 12 months a year, if he participates in baseball showcases and football camps between the two seasons. Although it dramatically improves his odds of dating a cheerleader, the injury risk is enormous.
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