For parents and coaches, the temptation to push an athlete to specialize in a single sport is tempting, even at a young age. Stories of athletes like Tiger Woods, who was intensely focused on golf since early childhood, give credence to the notion that the only way children will be successful in sport is if they are laser-focused on a singular activity.
But there are many other great athletes who maintained participation in multiple sports throughout high school. In fact, research is showing that early specialization is unnecessary and may actually be hurting athletes and their performances. Now, many college coaches even prefer athletes who have participated in multiple sports.
Here, Michele LaBotz, TrueSport Expert and sports medicine physician, shares five tips that parents and coaches should know about sport specialization, particularly in younger athletes.
1. Sampling sports improves athleticism
Participation in a variety of sports actually increases a child’s capacity for movement, which will be beneficial as they progress in any given sport. “The more pathways that the body makes between the brain and the muscles helps improve the athlete’s ability to move in a lot of different ways,” says LaBotz. “At a young age, it’s best to consider the opposite of sports specialization, which is sports sampling, where an athlete is trying a bunch of different sports and activities.”
2. Sport sampling creates lifelong athletes
“Rock climbing, mountain biking, paddleboarding … there are many great sports and activities that are considered “lifestyle sports” rather than high-performance team sports, but they can be so important and helpful for development of athleticism in children and adolescents,” says LaBotz. “For example, the balance and agility kids develop with things like skateboarding and surfing provides a good foundation for more sport-specific skills.”
Research has found that healthy levels of physical activity are determined in large part by family patterns of activity. Furthermore, most young athletes will not end up pursuing their sport professionally, but hopefully will remain active, healthy humans for the rest of their lives. “Early on, consider engaging in a lot of family-oriented activities, not just dropping kids off at the soccer field,” recommends LaBotz.