The U.S. Olympic Committee recently published a report based on a survey distributed to nearly 2,000 Olympic athletes. The results indicated that the vast majority of Olympians did not specialize in their sport until very late in their development, and even then, some continued to participate in other sports. The numbers are staggering...
Average number of sports played among Olympians (by age)
Age Average Number of Sports Played
As you can see, on average, athletes continued to play roughly three sports until the age of 14. As they approached high school, they continued to play more than one sport. If that is not enough evidence, check out this study conducted by ESPN: They surveyed 128 NFL quarterbacks – 73 active, 55 retired – and 95 percent of them played multiple sports in high school. Nearly 70 percent of them played three sports or more. There were only five active NFL quarterbacks who reported that they were single-sport specialists. Between the two of those studies, athletes between the ages of 14-18 (that means you high school kid), played over two sports. Interesting to think about when little Johnny, who happens to be only 8, is told by some club coach that he needs to start focusing on one sport if he wants to get that scholarship.
In order to be a great player, one must be an athlete first. When was the last time you watched a professional sport competition and said, "Man, that dude is a terrible athlete". It just doesn't happen. And as the data shows you above, these competitors are great athletes because of the athletic foundation they built playing multiple sports throughout their childhood. Each sport has the ability to teach you something new. Skills and sense transfer from sport to sport. Overall athletic ability matters in sport. Participating in multiple sports keeps you hungry. It keeps you fresh. It keeps you energetic. When all os these factors are working in your favor, you will develop into a better athlete over time! Early specialization impairs all of this, limiting athletes’ potential for long-term success.
Bottom line, mounting evidence shows no benefit to young athletes specializing in a single sport. Even more alarming, they have a greater risk of repetitive-use injury, they miss out on the advantages that playing multiple sports can give them, and psychological burnout has eliminated many from the game before they even hit their athletic prime. So encourage your kids to try different sports and to have fun while they are doing it. It might not equal a scholarship or a professional contract, but for the 99 percent of young athletes that don’t become professional athletes, this varied athletic foundation helps them enjoy the camaraderie and health benefits of an active lifestyle well into adulthood.
Chris is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist and member of the National Strength & Conditioning Association. He has recently served as a high school football and wrestling coach. Chris loves swinging kettlebells around, watching football and reading books!