What Ever Happened To The Multi-Sport Youth Athlete?

Bo Jackson was a king among multi-sport athletesWhen I was growing up, my friends and I looked forward to seasons.  Fall was for football or soccer; winter was for basketball, wrestling or winter track; spring was for lacrosse, baseball or spring track.  It was great because as a young athlete started to feel for repetitive burn out as one particular season wore on, he could look forward to the next season of a different sport that was a completely different experience.

In recent years, there has been increasing pressure to specialize in one sport as the only path to playing a sport beyond high school.  I call this the Tiger Woods approach to youth athletics, which clearly serve him well for most of his career until he got plagued with a rash of injuries for the past several years.  With overuse injury being one of the negative side effects of single sports specialization, I wonder if Tiger’s body would not have broken down at a relatively young age had he supplemented his young golf experience cross training in other sports pursuits.  There is also the reality that an athlete with the magnitude of talent like Tiger Woods is extremely rare, and in the vast majority of cases, single sport specialization serves little more than to deny a child a varied experience and a big level of disappointment when specialization does not pay off.

Single sport specialization young keeps a child living in the single box of one experience in sport.  It not only limits the child’s options as to what he personally may excel at, but it also predisposes a child to burn out.  Case in point, by the time my college roommate made it to college where he needed basketball to gain acceptance (he was a bit of an underachiever in high school), he really could not care less if he played another minute on the court because that was all he had done all of his life.  When he got stricken with appendicitis mid-season, upon returning following his recovery from surgery, he realized that he was going to have to work to regain his spot.  Rather than work through this setback, he just quit.  When I asked him how he could just walk away so easily, he simply told me that basketball had begun to feel more like a job than a sport to him.

In Florida where I live, the weather facilitates the ability to play any sport year round.  This is both a blessing and a curse because on one hand it is great to be able to be outside year round, while on the other hand, the pressure to specialize year round is worse than it is in most places.  Still, with the expansion of indoor athletic facilities, year round participation in one sport is a nationwide phenomenon that seems poised to get worse.

Single sport specialization may also limit opportunities in other sports that a child may have more natural ability in.  A good friend of mine, Brian Megill, shared with me that he first got noticed by Syracuse via football, which then got him on their radar for lacrosse.  Brian went on to have a brilliant lacrosse career at Syracuse and star in both indoor and outdoor professional lacrosse leagues, as well as Team USA.

Finally, most trainers and sports medicine specialists opine that multi-sport is what is best for developing athletes mentally and physically.  Says celebrity trainer (and former high school football, player, wrestler, and lacrosse player) Steve Jordan:

The multi-sport athlete has several advantages both mentally and physically that are important. First and foremost it prevents mental burn out and overtraining physically which are two very common outcomes when you focus on one sport. The person participating in that one sport start to feel resentment or develops a lackluster attitude towards practicing, games and their teammates. And since the athletes often times focuses on one position the repetitive pattern overload can diminish gains that one would expect from that amount of time invested. Overtraining can show up in a variety of ways including acute injuries like hamstring pulls, torn ACL’s, sprain ankles, elbow and shoulder issues as well as an overall sense of feeling tired or lethargic. 

Some other advantages worth noting of the multi-sport athlete are:

Transfer of sports skills. Do be a great athlete you have to coordinate the ability to accelerate, decelerate and stabilize the body in motion. When you have the ability to create different sensory inputs that come from playing different sports you are hard wiring the nervous system to be more flexible and adaptable for pure athleticism.

There clearly is no question that multi-sport is what is best for young athletes.  The question remains, is it possible that we will ever see a time again when kids play 2-3 sports?

Dr. Roger Welton was a 4 year starter for Montclair State University and was selected as a First Team All Knickerbocker Conference Midfielder in 1995, 1996. He is the founder of the Viera-Suntree Lacrosse Club and Space Coast Elite Lacrosse Club in Brevard County, Florida.

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