Why kids should play multiple sports

In recent years there has been much debate about the topic of “early specialisation” in young athletes. Often parents, coaches and adolescent athletes alike will assume that focussing all energy on one sport will lead to greater achievements. Athletes are often under pressure from coaches to “choose one”, and to spend whatever off season their sport may have doing pre-season training in preparation for the season opening rather than participating in other sports. 

In our clinic we see these pressures when teenagers show a talent for a sport at a young age, and then have opportunities to play for their school, club and representative teams in this sport, often meaning they simply run out of time to continue with other sports. A fear from coaches of injury risk in other sports also seems to play a role, as well as a concern around burnout and “how much sport is too much?”. Generally all parents want what is best for their kids’ health, however occasionally a belief that your kid is the next Tim Cahill or Venus Williams can cloud your judgement!

Early specialisation can be defined as an athlete in early adolescence:

  • Choosing to play only one sport

  • Participating in that sport for more than 8 months per year

  • Quitting other sports to focus on just the one (3) 

In general, the findings on this topic seem to say:

  • There does not seem to be any disadvantage to playing a diverse range of sports in adolescence

  • There is some evidence to suggest that early specialisation can be associated with a range of negative consequences affecting physical, psychological and social development

    • Physical: higher rates of injury, less variety in sport may lead to a loss of motor skill acquisition, risk of muscular imbalances and overuse injuries (especially in repetitive sports)

    • Psychological & social: risk of burnout and social isolation, and increased pressure and stress on an athlete to perform in the chosen sport

  • For most sports, there is no evidence that early specialisation and intense training prior to puberty are necessary to achieve elite status.

  • Benefits are mostly confined to sports where international representation comes at a very young age (eg gymnastics)

  • An additional risk for active girls includes contribution to a condition known as the female athlete triad - high training loads combined with inadequate energy intake leading to altered menstrual cycle function, decreased bone mineral density and low energy availability. Female athletes who specialise in sports requiring endurance or low body fat are particularly at risk (long distance running, dancing, gymnastics etc). 

Our recommendations for parents

  • Encourage your child to play multiple sports throughout the year

  • Encourage free play and creative physical activities and games

  • If in mid-late adolescence there is a focus on one specific sport, ensure that there is a high level of supervision of load management, strength and conditioning and injury rehabilitation, most likely in the form of a multidisciplinary team working alongside a coach. 

  • Ensure that kids experience an “off season”, and do something different with their body during that time

  • Be aware of the signs of overtraining including recurrent injuries, loss of enjoyment and ongoing fatigue. 

  • Remind your kids that many great professional athletes were talented at more than one sport during their schooling!


Most of all, we just want all kids to be physically active every day, in a way that they enjoy. 

References:

  1. Jayanthi, N., Pinkham, C., Dugas, L., Patrick, B., & LaBella, C. (2013). Sports Specialization in Young Athletes: Evidence-Based Recommendations. Sports Health, 5(3), 251–257. https://doi.org/10.1177/1941738112464626

  2. Joseph Baker, Stephen Cobley & Jessica Fraser‐Thomas (2009) What do we know about early sport specialization? Not much!, High Ability Studies, 20:1, 77-89, DOI: 10.1080/13598130902860507

  3. Myer, G.D., Jayanthi, N., Difiori, J.P., Faigenbaum, A.D., Kiefer, A.W., Logerstedt, D. and Micheli, L.J., 2015. Sport specialization, part I: does early sports specialization increase negative outcomes and reduce the opportunity for success in young athletes?. Sports Health, 7[5], pp.437-442. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1941738115598747

  4. De Souza, M.J., Nattiv, A., Joy, E., Misra, M., Williams, N.I., Mallinson, R.J., Gibbs, J.C., Olmsted, M., Goolsby, M. and Matheson, G., 2014. 2014 Female Athlete Triad Coalition Consensus Statement on treatment and return to play of the female athlete triad: 1st International Conference held in San Francisco, California, May 2012 and 2nd International Conference held in Indianapolis, Indiana, May 2013. Br J Sports Med, 48[4], pp.289-289. https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/48/4/289?itm_campaign=bjsm&itm_content=consumer&itm_medium=cpc&itm_source=trendmd&itm_term=0-A


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Megan May