The Revival Of The Multisport Athlete
What do Michael Jordan, Alex Morgan, JJ Watt, Abby Wambach, and Wayne Gretzky have in common? All of them were youth multi-sport athletes.
As specialization continues to become more prevalent throughout youth sports, it is increasingly difficult for multi-sport organizations to remain popular. Parents believe that specializing is going to increase their child’s long-term success & skill level, and ultimately lead to college scholarships and professional sports careers. However, data suggests that specialization is not all that it’s made out to be. On the flip side, data for multi-sport athletes shows that there are far more benefits for those who resist specialization.
— USA TODAY HSS (@usatodayhss) February 8, 2018
In our LeagueApps podcast series, Sideline Data, we have multiple segments with world-renowned doctors, with specialties ranging from sports medicine to clinical psychology. Across medical specialties, the series has revealed that among our interviewees, there is a concern that specialization is harmful to youth athletes. Because the specialization phenomenon is so new, there are not enough studies with consistent data to unanimously label specialization as harmful. Accordingly, we decided to consolidate expert opinions and professional testimonials regarding the benefits of maintaining multi-sport athlete status.
Rest and recovery are critical components of sports training, or any activity, and they are necessary for both physical and psychological health. Every day that athletes play, their muscles and bones undergo stress. Recovery is necessary for progression and strengthening. Dr. Joshua Dines, sports medicine surgeon from the Hospital for Special Surgery, is an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports medicine and shoulder surgery. He delves into the differentiation of acute and chronic workloads in an episode of Sideline Data.
Specialization is usually tied to changes that happen within the seven-day average or an athlete’s acute workload. Dr. Dines expressed concern that “when there is a spike in acute throws, that’s going to put athletes at an increased risk of injury.” This acute versus chronic workload ratio is not limited to baseball and throwing. It can be applied to all sports and athletic activities. The doctors have studied the data and drawn correlations between specialization and increased acute workloads, it is something to consider the next time someone advises your child to specialize.
If someone encourages your child to specialize in a single sport, that person generally does not have your child's best interests in mind.
— JJ Watt (@JJWatt) March 7, 2017
Seventy percent of children drop out of organized sports by age 13, and the leading reasons for this dropout are injury and burnout. Burnout is an epidemic that is sweeping youth sports as young athletes are not getting the proper rest and recovery required for the psychological aspect of the game. Being a multi-sport athlete preserves the fun and motivation to participate. Alex Morgan, soccer phenom and forward for the U.S. women’s national soccer team credits her late specialization for not burning out, “I was just having fun playing multiple sports. I never wanted to narrow it down to one sport…I loved going from soccer to basketball practice to softball to track. I really enjoyed that and I didn’t want to take that next step until I was ready. I’ve seen a lot of girls who were burned out by the time they got to college and I didn’t want to be one of those girls who were sick of what they were doing by the time they were 18.” Participating in multiple sports ensures that there are built in off-seasons where kids aren’t focusing on their main sport, but rather a secondary sport and this lowers the risk of burnout. Wayne Gretzky is often referred to as the greatest hockey player of all time and he didn’t get there by playing hockey year round. “I played everything. I played lacrosse, baseball, hockey, soccer, and track and field. I was a big believer that you played hockey in the winter and when the season was over you hung up your skates and you played something else.”
Motivation is a very important component of long-term success. Dr. John P. DiFiori, Chief of the Primary Care Sports Medicine Service at Hospital for Special Surgery and Director of Sports Medicine for the NBA spoke to LeagueApps on the issue of burnout. He said, “you could be a tremendously gifted and physically talented young athlete, but if you don’t have the desire and the motivation, you’re simply not going to be as successful in the long-run.”
Through studies, single sport specialization has only proven beneficial for early entry sports such as swimming and diving, gymnastics and figure skating. Based on his research and knowledge of specialization trends, Dr. DiFiore pointed out that “individuals are actually at a greater chance of having long term success if they participated in multiple sports as a youngster and not specialized early…the data shows that in basketball, the most successful athletes did not specialize in basketball to the exclusion of other sports until they were 15 or 16 years old.”
As a multi-sport organizer, here are three things that you need to tell your parents and athletes who are considering specialization:
Specialization is correlated to an increase in acute workloads and this increases an athlete’s risk of injury.
The belief that in order to be successful, you need to begin a sport at a very young age, and only participate in one sport, is not supported by data.
Playing multiple sports over the year and taking seasons off from specific motions allows an athlete’s body time for the proper rest and recovery necessary for progression and strengthening.
The positives of being a multi-sport athlete are clear and according to experts like Dr. DiFiori, “the data is most clear in saying that for most sports, early single sport specialization is not only not sufficient, but perhaps is less likely to produce a successful athlete down the road.” Micheal Jordan didn’t specialize until college. Alex Morgan was a multi-sport athlete. JJ Watt was a four-sport athlete through high school. Abby Wambach credits playing basketball for improving the way she played soccer. And Wayne Gretzky had such success as a hockey player because of the anaerobic strength he developed from running races. There are more reasons to be a multi-sport athlete than to specialize. Whether or not you’re an athlete, parent, coach or youth sports organizer, hopefully, this information has educated you on the benefits of multi-sport activity vs. specialization.