Contrary to what most adults assume, there is surprising evidence that playing multiple sports is more effective in developing successful athletes than single-sport specialization. 

One need look no further than former U.S. soccer superstar Abby Wambach who credits her participation in high school basketball with giving her the fundamentals and timing to score so many goals with her head.  Wambach points to rebounding as having the biggest effect on her heading prowess, saying learning the timing of your jump and learning the trajectory of the ball coming off the rim in basketball played an enormouw role in her ability to put balls in the goal using her head while on the soccer field.

But the pressure to specialize in just one sport and play it year-round is intense.  Gone are the days when most kids played one sport a season and switched it up as the weather changed.  Experts agree that single sport specialization has resulted in a higher incidence of overuse injuries in increasingly younger kids. 

Data suggests that specialization in a single sport is actually doing more harm than good to the long-term success of team sports.  Young athletes who participate in multiple sports have skills and pattern recognition that transfer between sports, ultimately making them better all-around athletes.

How do you combat a youth sports culture that pressures young athletes to play one sport year-round?

Although it’s easy to feel a need to keep up with the Joneses, stick to your guns and make sure your young athlete:

  • Is Exposed to multiple sports.  For an athlete to be successful, he or she must love to play.  Exposing kids to a variety of sports improves the likelihood of them discovering their passion for a particular sport (or sports), which is essential for long-term success.
  • Avoids playing a single sport competitively year-round.  The American Medical Society for Sports Medicine and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend not specializing in a sport until age 10.
  • Focuses on skill development rather than just structured competition.  Developing fundamental skills early on increases success and ultimately an athlete’s love for sports.
  • Limits his/her training.  It’s important that young athletes don’t overdo it.  For high school athletes, training more than 16 hours per week has been associated with an increased risk of injury, so healthy limits are essential.
  • Keeps the joy in sports. Constant pressure from parents and coaches to play harder, train harder, and do more can sap the joy out of playing and lead to burnout.  Most young athletes will never make the pros, so keep your expectations (and theirs) in check.
  • Makes proper rest an important part of his/her training. Experts recommend a minimum of one day of rest per week from organized training and competition.  When asked by kids what they could do to improve their game, many professional athletes had the same answer:  get more sleep.