Science Supports Youth Playing Multiple Sports: What if my kid just loves one?

By Kristen Gostomski, B.S. Sports & Health Science, HSSCS, INHC

In my last article The Risks of Early Specialization in One Sport we discussed the science behind why early specialization in one sport can hinder both the mental and physical development of young athletes. Lets' review the science:

A 2016 clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children participate in multiple sports, at least until puberty, in order to decrease the possibility of injuries, stress, and burnout. The report also concludes that, for most sports, specializing in a sport later (late adolescence) may lead to a higher chance of young athletes accomplishing their athletic goals.

A study published in The Journal of Sports Sciences compared physical fitness and gross motor coordination in boys who specialized in one sport and those who sampled more than one sport. The conclusion: At age 12, boys who played various sports were more coordinated, had more explosive strength, and were faster than those who specialized in only one.

An American Medical Society for Sports Medicine survey conducted in 2013 shows that 88 percent of college athletes surveyed participated in more than one sport as a child.

The National Strength and Conditioning Association recommends that athletes play three or more sports through the age of 12, and at least two sports from ages 
12 to 16 or through high school.

A study from the School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Wisconsin, reports that high school athletes who specialize in a single sport are 70 percent more likely to suffer an injury during the playing season than athletes who play multiple sports.

The research is clear—play multiple sports to avoid injuries and fully develop athleticism, even though many parents ask, "What if my kid just loves one sport?"

In the early years—from about 5 to 10—encourage kids to try as many sports as possible. Sports should be a combination of free play and organized sport, although free play is more important. In my experience, kids who have been exposed to many different sports and activities in positive settings, typically don't zero in on one sport before the ages of 11 or 12.

What if my kid is 12 
and we
jumped on the early 
band wagon 
when she turned 8?
Sorry. You're screwed. Just kidding.

Whether athletes are looking to compete in a sport at the highest level, or simply to participate in sports for fun, it's never too late to diversify. Instead of piling on more to an already packed schedule, the key is to take time off from structured training in the principle sport to open up time for other activities. Diversifying is also beneficial to avoiding overuse injuries and mental burnout. With planned time off, athletes can return to their primary sport mentally and physically reinvigorated.

Offer your child opportunities to participate in other activities—structured, unstructured, or both. The list is endless—basketball, soccer, volleyball, swimming, cycling, fencing, running, gymnastics, baseball, softball, hockey, tennis, rowing, golf, martial arts, badminton, table tennis, climbing, bowling, dance, handball, skateboarding, strength training, pickle ball, archery, music, art, drama, and so on. Kids should choose one or more activities each year to complement their specialized sport. Varied activities could remain the same, or kids might decide to try something different each year. Analyze your budget, schedule, and activities available in your area. With those issues in mind, give young athletes as many choices as possible. Then, without taking control, let them choose.

What if my kid wants to give up other
sports to focus on a favorite?
Let's be clear, being passionate about one sport is not bad. The love of activity is in and of itself something that will promote mental and physical well-being. However, encouraging the love of activity rather than the love of one sport will up the odds of active kids becoming active adults. 

Just as you shouldn't force kids to quit sports they love to focus on one, you shouldn't force kids to play sports they don't love. That doesn't mean you can't encourage and guide them toward other sports and activities to supplement the one sport they live for. Here are some ways to do that.

Has your child bought into the myth that focusing on one sport leads to a competitive advantage over kids that play multiple sports? If so, discuss current research and how playing multiple sports can result in more success in a primary sport.

Ask your kids questions: Do they dislike other sports or is it the environment of those sports they dislike? Do they like the coach and the kids on the team? Are they comfortable with the time commitment? Does the level of competition suit them? Asking these questions isn't only about their ability. They may need or want a more laid-back environment for sports that aren't considered primary. If you discover it's more about the environment than the sport, explore other leagues, teams, and opportunities. If it's definitely the sport they don't like, it's time to let go.
The first structured sports kids are exposed to are likely built from your own preferences, their friends' preferences, as well as what is popular in your area. Encourage young athletes to try something new by giving them ownership. To encourage and support your child, refer to the possible activities mentioned in the section above—"What if my kid is 12 and we jumped on the early specialization band wagon when she turned 8?"

We all want our children to grow up to become active, healthy, and happy adults. Encouraging activities that are diverse, enjoyable, and sustainable is a valuable game plan to set them on the right path.