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We now live in an age where it is common to see young athletes being pushed to play a single sport year-round. David Leadbetter, coach of the world’s most dominant golfer Lydia Ko, recently shared that her family decided at age 5 she was going to be a golfer. It’s hard to argue with the results. At 17 Ko became the youngest golfer, of either gender, to be ranked #1 in the world and is the first woman golf player to earn at least $2 million in prize money each of her first three years on tour.
No sport or country has escaped the global push to pressure young athletes and their families to pick just one sport year-round. Oftentimes coaches are the source of such pressure.
For coaches who still push for early sport specialization and point to the Lydia Ko’s of the world as the path to sporting excellence, Jordan Speith provides an equally compelling counterargument. Speith, like Ko, attained the world #1 ranking in golf at an early age. At the age of 22 he became the youngest winner of the U.S. Open in nearly 100 years. The following year he set the record for annual earnings by winning over $22 million on the PGA tour, including a $10 million bonus for finishing first in the FedEx Cup standings.
Yet, unlike Ko, Speith’s parents decided to avoid early specialization in golf even though Jordan wanted to play golf year-round at an early age. As his mom, Chris Speith, explained, “He hung up his golf clubs during football and baseball season—he was a quarterback and a pitcher—two pretty big roles. Then, he’d pick up golf again when summer rolled around.”
So, why does early specialization persist despite all the scientific evidence and position statements by leading sport organizations to the contrary? Yes, gymnastics and figure skating favor early specialization because maneuvers possible only at a young age are more highly rewarded, but those sports are the exceptions. The consensus is that athletes should refrain from specializing in one sport year-round as long as they can; at least until age 14 and preferably all the way through high school.
Wise coaches understand the long-term value of playing multiple sports and prize multi-sport athletes. The growing list of multisport athlete proponents includes highly regarded coaches like Joe Maddon and Mike Matheny in baseball, and Nick Saban and Urban Meyer in football. Super Bowl and college football championship coach Pete Carroll said it best when he shared what he looks for when recruiting athletes for his teams: “The first questions I’ll ask about a kid are, ‘What other sports does he play? What are his positions? Is he a big hitter in baseball? Is he a pitcher? Does he play hoops?’ I really, really don’t favor kids having to specialize in one sport.”
Some of the many benefits of playing multiple sports include fewer overuse injuries, improved decision-making skills and mental health, better overall athleticism, a more diverse peer social network, and exposure to different coaching styles. It should come as no surprise then that there is an over-representation of athletes from small towns in every professional sport league. Attending school in a small town often requires athletes to play multiple sports just to ensure schools can field teams in each sport.
Although wise coaches encourage athletes to play multiple sports we must acknowledge the realities of this early specialization age. The pressure put on athletes and their parents from those who run elite travel clubs and coaches who are concerned about losing their best athletes to other sports is very real and increasing all the time. The following suggestions are offered to help coaches push back against the early specialization trend.
1. Require an off season
At minimum coaches should consider enforcing a 75:25 guideline of participation in a single sport each year. Consider mandating an annual off season that is four months (25%) long. This guideline for participation in a primary sport will help athletes stay fresh and return to their primary sport with renewed energy and enthusiasm. When coaching athletes 12 and under consider adjusting the ratio to 50:50 (6 months each year for an off season from a primary sport). At younger ages it is even more critical to take time away from a single sport to help build a strong foundation of fundamental movement and basic sport skills that will transfer across sport, while reducing the likelihood of injuries that occur from repeating the same movements and skills all the time. A mandatory off season does not mean no sport – it means transferring to other activities for at least part of the year.
2. Mandate multiple position or event sampling within a sport
Some sports lend themselves to this strategy more than others. In baseball it is relatively easy to require athletes to play an infield and an outfield position, and in track & field to have them participate in both a track and a field event. Playing multiple positions helps athletes build better overall ‘game sense’ because they develop knowledge of the demands of other positions. For example, soccer players allowed to play as a defender as well as forward will gain a better appreciation of how to support their teammates and anticipate ball movement. Playing different positions in a sport builds athlete confidence and willingness to step into any role needed to best support the team, which is especially helpful when teammates get injured or are absent. Conversely, early position specialization erodes young athletes’ willingness to take risks and step out of their comfort zone to support their team.
3. Model multisport participation as a coach
The most powerful way to teach others about the value of multisport participation is to model it yourself as a coach. In school sport settings, if the primary sport you coach is a fall season sport, ask to join the coaching staff of a different sport in the winter or spring season. Assuming the head coaching role for multiple sports each year may be impractical in many settings, but coaches can easily make time to coach alongside coaches in other sports, serving as assistants or position coaches. Besides serving as a powerful message to your athletes and their parents, this strategy has the added benefit of growing your coaching network and building a deeper repertoire of coaching skills. Building a multisport coaching network also brings awareness of the demands and opportunities unique across a range of sports. This awareness can then be used to help inform parents and athletes of suitable off season sport options to pursue, and enhance your ability to implement strategy #1.
4. Raise parents’ awareness
None of the aforementioned coaching strategies will work unless parents of the athletes you coach are informed about the perils of early sport specialization and the value of multisport participation. Although coaches can educate themselves about these issues by reviewing the sources provided at the end of this commentary, most parents are unlikely to have the time or interest in sifting through the literature. Instead, armed with what you learn from reading the literature you can set aside a few minutes at the preseason parent meeting to share your insights. Provide a 1-page written summary with links to online resources to give parents an opportunity to digest the information and to dig deeper if they so desire. For example, basketball coaches can share the recently launched Youth Basketball Guidelines webpage created by USA Basketball and the NBA. I also highly recommend coaches of any sport to have parents take the 12-item free online sport specialization test.
Despite promises of athletic glory, athletic scholarships and the outlier athletes like Lydia Ko, the risks and drawbacks associated with playing a single sport year-round far outweigh the potential benefits claimed by those who push early sport specialization. So take a stand against this trend, and be a coach who best serves your athletes and your program by actively promoting multisport participation.
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