A large number of children play organized sports. It usually starts as a way to keep children active and to develop social skills while learning how to play with others. Sports also allow children to develop their physical skills in many different aspects. These skills may include movement, agility, speed or conditioning, and the development partially depends on the sport that they are playing.
Each sport brings something unique and different to the table as each sport allows you to work on multiple physical skills or attributes. For example, soccer develops a child’s aerobic (with oxygen) conditioning, agility and acceleration while a sport such as hockey will develop anaerobic (without oxygen) conditioning, strength and lower body power.
Most children get exposed to playing multiple sports as they age, usually starting with low impact, easy to start sports. As they age sports may progress to become more physical and include contact or more complicated objectives. This diversity in sports allows young athletes to develop as many different physical skills as they can to make them a well rounded athlete capable of excelling in any sport.
Sports, however, can also develop into a passion and a higher pursuit for many children as they get more involved in the sports they are playing. This passion more times than not leads to an early specialization in a single sport. Early sport specialization (ESS) can be defined as “intense year-round training in a specific sport with the exclusion of other sports at a young age.” (1)
This seems to be happening earlier and earlier in children's lives leading to a decrease in the diversification of that child’s sport experiences. Due to the competitive nature in sports many young athletes, often along with influences from their parents, choose to practice one sport all year round to try to get a leg up on the competition. The idea of becoming a professional athlete is a powerful motivator to start this process as young as possible.
However some research suggests that very few early sport specialization athletes actually make it far enough or last long enough to become a professional athlete.
“Few individuals who specialize in sport at young ages make it to elite levels and reap the social, economic, and other benefits associated with success. The overwhelming majority drop out along the way.” (2)
This could be due to the fact that early sport specialization can lead to burn out. Some athletes that focus entirely on one sport can lose interest or their passion for the game. They can also feel like they are missing out on social opportunities due to their constant training. In addition to burnout this early focus can also lead to overuse injuries.
Also the athletes decrease in diversification can lead to lesser skill development in certain areas of that child’s physical abilities. Now this is not to say that you can only develop certain skills in certain sports, you can absolutely train these skills outside of sport. However most people will not because they are busy training specific skills for the early specialized sport they have picked leaving out valuable skills that could supplement their game.
All of this suggests that early sport specialization could in fact be more detrimental to a young athlete’s development versus a multi sport athlete.
“It has been proposed in the literature and lay press that a lack of diversified activity in youth leads to overuse injury, psychological fatigue, and burnout. ESS may not be necessary for elite athletic achievement, and the contrary has been proposed that early sport diversification leads to superior results.” (3)
This leads to the opinion that youth athletes should play as many sports as they can handle for as long as they are willing and capable, with benefits reaching both physical and mental aspects of their game. Since there is no specific timeline to suggest at what age an athlete should specialize, due to the fact that every athlete is different and each sport is different, they should base it on their personal interests and schedule. It is very common for athletes to play multiple sports through all of high school and all the way into their college years.
"I played three or four sports as a kid," Christian McCaffrey says. "When I was in elementary school and middle school, I never had an offseason to train. I was always in season. And I think playing multiple sports was the best thing I've ever done. They all complemented each other. I ran track, played basketball, played baseball and played football. And when I decided I wanted to play football, I didn't stop playing those other sports because I knew that they complemented me. In high school, I played three sports. (Christian McCaffrey, NFL Running Back for the Carolina Panthers).(4)
Photo credit - Google - Christian McCaffery, https://www.charlotteobserver.com/sports/nfl/carolina-panthers/article235853372.html
2)Malina, R., Early Sport Specialization, Roots, Effectiveness, Risks, Current Sports Medicine Reports: November 2010 - Volume 9 - Issue 6 - p 364-371
3) Popkin, C., et all., Early Sport Specialization, Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: November 15, 2019 - Volume 27 - Issue 22 - p e995-e1000