PDP Co-Founder Dave Wright & PDP Technical Advisor Dan Wright discussing the benefits of playing multiple sports.
It’s sometimes suggested in the sporting world that, if you want to make it at an elite level, you should specialize early and not play multiple sports during childhood. But does this theory hold up to scrutiny? An increasing number of coaches, recruiters, and other experts are arguing the opposite: that playing multiple sports is not only beneficial for the all-round development of children — as people, not just athletes — but that it also increases their chances of success in their main sport.
Here, we examine the benefits of playing multiple sports and explain why it should be encouraged, not deterred.
In this article
Why should children play multiple sports?
What is specialization?
Before examining the benefits of playing multiple sports, we should consider the alternative; specializing in just one.
What exactly constitutes specialization is itself a topic of debate. A study in the scientific journal Sports Health defines it as “intense, year-round training in a single sport with the exclusion of other sports.” A subsequent article in the same journal places specialization on a spectrum “where a highly specialized athlete may be able to (1) choose a main sport, (2) participate for greater than 8 months per year in 1 main sport, and (3) quit all other sports to focus on 1 sport,” allowing the extent to which someone specializes to be defined as low, moderate, or high based on how many of these criteria they meet.
Some parents and coaches consider specialization to be focusing on one primary sport while still engaging in other secondary sports or activities; others classify it as the discontinuation of most or all other extracurricular activities besides the main sport. It’s this latter, more exclusive form, often linked to premature professionalization within youth sports, that invites most criticism from the detractors of early specialization.
The risks of early specialization and the growing appreciation of multi-sport athletes
Mounting evidence suggests that specializing in a single sport early can be detrimental to children’s development, from both an athletic standpoint and a psychological and social perspective. First and foremost, participating in a single organised sport too young can deprive kids of important opportunities for informal play (in that sport or in another sport); by encouraging early specialization, we may be laying out a sporting pathway that children will follow for the rest of their lives, often making these choices when they’re as young as five- or six-years-old.
“It’s massive, because who knows what the boys are going to do?” says Leicester City FC’s Pre-Academy Coordinator and Lead Coach Mark Lyons, explaining the growing role of multisports in UK soccer clubs. “They might fall out of love with football and want to go and play rugby or cricket… You don’t know where they’re going to end up.”
And this loss of childhood experiences isn’t necessarily rewarded with enhanced athletic development. As John O’Sullivan, professional coach and founder of the Changing the Game Project, explains: “to be an elite-level player at a college or in professional sport, you need a degree of exceptional athleticism. And the best medically, scientifically and psychologically recommended way to develop such all-round athleticism is ample free play and multiple sport participation as a child.” In his article on the perils of specialization, O’Sullivan cites multiple examples of college soccer coaches who actively seek athletes with multisport backgrounds.
While acknowledging that some sports, such as gymnastics or figure skating do usually require participants to specialize earlier in order to progress to elite level due to the nature of the current system in those sports (which in itself could be challenged as to how ethical or appropriate it is), O’Sullivan maintains that sports like American football, basketball, and soccer do not. “[These sports] are so dependent upon physical prowess that the technical skills and tactical knowhow can be developed later… There are many stories of athletes taking up these sports in their teens, even their 20s, and playing at a very high level because of the ability to transfer skills learned in one sport to another.”
Research also suggests that children who specialize in a single sport could be more prone to developing overuse injuries; a study in the Journal of Sport Rehabilitation found that adolescent athletes who specialized were 50% more likely to develop patellofemoral pain, and four times likelier to develop conditions like Osgood Schlatter disease or patellar tendinopathy than multisport athletes, concluding that “an absence of variety associated with sports specialization can be associated with repetitive-load stress on the growing skeleton.”
A 2019 study in the Journal of Athletic Training expanded on these findings, stating that “from a biomechanical standpoint… [specialization] may result in excessive exposure to a narrow spectrum of repetitive body movements without an adequate interval for recovery,” citing intensive repetition of the same movement patterns as a possible contributor to overuse injuries in athletes who specialize.
Elsewhere, research has shown that kids who specialize early may be more inclined to quit due to factors like decreased motivation and loss of enjoyment.
According to PDP Technical Advisor Dan Wright, coaches and parents should encourage early sampling instead of early specialization. “At a young age, we want to keep that funnel quite wide, so maybe [have kids] trying three or four different things.” Besides the athletic benefits of playing multiple sports, this will give children more options as they get older, and help them to be more well-rounded as people.
The development of fundamental movement skills
Playing multiple sports is also a great way to increase physical literacy and develop the fundamental movement skills that are essential to playing all sports and key to maintaining a good standard of mobility. To develop these skills, kids need to practice a range of different movement patterns, and the best way to do this is to play an array of different sports.
According to O’Sullivan, “research shows that early participation in multiple sports leads to better overall motor and athletic development, longer playing careers, [and] increased ability to transfer skills to other sports.”
In reflecting on childhood injuries that he attributes to early specialization in soccer, PDP’s Lead Researcher, James Vaughan, asserts that a more holistic approach to movement education is required, one that encourages activities like dance and martial arts alongside a variety of sports.
When it comes to soccer, fundamental movement skills are crucial as kids get older. Nick Levett, former Talent ID Manager at The FA, claims that, without them, coaches lack the foundations upon which to teach more complex technical and tactical elements of the game.
This is a belief shared by former US U17 Assistant Coach and Men’s International, Erik Imler. “I want kids to play other sports. I think it’s very important,” says Imler. “Without it, you could get very limited mobility and athletic development. I encourage kids to play other sports in the off-season. Go and experiment and play other things.”
“If you’re rigid in movement patterns, multisports is key,” adds Lyons, talking about the use of multisports at Leicester City. “If you can move and pick up coordination skills, you can pick up techniques as you’re getting older.”
Greater recognition of their value means multisports are increasingly being adopted by the academies of professional soccer clubs. In PDP’s webinar on Academy Insights, Nathan Thomas, Lead Foundation Phase Coach at MK Dons, explains their use of sports like handball, basketball, and tag rugby as arrival activities at the start of training sessions.
“There’s also that idea of donor sports that, tactically, might help you play another sport,” explains Dan Wright. Basketball in Spain, where it is often considered a second sport, is a good example; some coaches suggest there’s a link between the game’s fast pace and focus on short passing to the playing styles of the most successful Spanish teams. Similarly, the demands of playing multiple sports are believed to help children improve their creativity and decision-making.
Former Manchester United Fitness Coach Tony Strudwick asserts that every child under 12 should play more than one sport. Otherwise, he claims, they won’t develop the all-round athleticism required to meet the demands of the game at the highest level; they’ll get injured too often and subsequently won’t train enough, won’t break into the first team, and will eventually be released.
“You prevent injury, prevent burnout, by developing better athletes early on,” O’Sullivan concludes, “and really focusing on some of the soccer pieces later on.”
The social and psychological benefits of playing multiple sports
It’s also worth considering the social benefits of encouraging kids to play multiple sports; it can give children the opportunity to form other circles of friends and gain confidence socializing with different groups of people; and kids may enjoy playing sports in an environment with less pressure or fewer expectations, away from their ‘best’ or ‘most important’ sport.
Different sports also give kids a chance to enjoy new experiences, and valuable opportunities to be active in an age where ‘street soccer’ and other free-play sports are frequently impeded by things like video games and the prohibition of ball games in public spaces.
From a psychological perspective, playing multiple sports can help children to develop a healthier sense of their own identity. “It becomes really narrow when you constrain it just to the football environment,” explains Dr. Suzanne Brown, a clinical psychologist and expert in the fields of identity and attachment theory. Brown insists we shouldn’t allow children to identify as soccer players or athletes. Even in high-performance settings, it’s important to remember that they’re still kids, and for them to remember it too. Playing multiple sports encourages this outlook.
Contrasting it with early specialization, O’Sullivan observes how the multisport approach can also impact motivation. “If you force someone to choose really young, you’re taking away ownership, you sometimes take away enjoyment, you take away intrinsic motivation… I don’t think the best players in the world come out of early specialization environments. They‘re not early specializers, they’re early engagers.”
An early engagement environment is built on enjoyment — somewhere kids can have fun, experiment, and play without fear. As coaches and parents, we should provide kids with this kind of environment across a range of sports and give them time to figure out which one(s) engage them the most.
Remembering why kids play sports
Our priority must be maximizing their enjoyment and engagement so that they continue to participate as they get older. “The reality is, the more diverse experience they have, the more engaged they stay in sport,” says PDP Co-Founder Dave Wright. “It’s tempting to believe that missing a session or missing a game is the worst thing ever. But actually, if the kid misses one session a week to play a different sport, it’s not going to have a massive impact… as long as that player is still enjoying sport and staying engaged — that’s key.”
Ultimately, children should be allowed to play the sports they want to, whether they’re motivated by enjoyment or a belief they can have some success playing it.
It’s a popular misconception that kids with professional aspirations have to out-train everyone else their age, almost treating their development like it’s a race. And while we shouldn’t discourage hard work and perseverance, we should always remember to ask ourselves “what is the purpose of our team?”
“I really hate the words ‘produce’ and ‘product’ when it comes to youth sporting programs,” says Wright. “We have to remember, these are children, they’re playing sport, they’re having their experience and we’re developing humans, not assembling products in a factory.”
Dan Wright offers some helpful advice on how we can remind ourselves of this fact: “We constantly refer to kids as players. Maybe if we switch that language to ‘the child’ or ‘the kid’, we would have a different world view… is he a player, or is he a child who plays football?”
Remembering that we’re coaching children, not athletes, highlights the absurdity of limiting them to just one sport and depriving them of valuable opportunities to play and stay active.
The key points
- Encourage early sampling instead of specialization. This will help children develop better all-round athleticism, reduce the risk of injury and burnout, provide them with a range of valuable experiences, and give them time to figure out which sports really engage them.
- Only a minute fraction of the children who play sport will go on to become professional athletes. We must cater to all of the kids we coach, not just the ones perceived as talented, delivering enjoyable and engaging sporting experiences that will make them want to participate and be physically active.
- Playing multiple sports is an excellent way to develop the fundamental movement skills that are integral to an enjoyable and successful life of physical activity.
- Children should identify as children, not as athletes. Playing a range of sports helps kids to separate their self-esteem from their sporting ability, giving them a healthier sense of identity.
- Most kids play sport for enjoyment. Our priority should be to provide a fun and engaging environment that encourages them to stay active as they get older. And a diverse sporting environment is one of the best ways to maximize their engagement.
Image Source: Deposit Photos
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