It’s not uncommon to hear parents or coaches say that kids should pick one sport at an early age and practice and play only that sport. They argue that early specialization will give those kids an advantage in college recruiting and even getting to the pros.
There is one problem with that argument. It’s just not true.
The recent NFL draft offered the latest evidence for the merits of playing multiple sports. Eighty-eight percent of the players drafted, including 30 of the 32 first-round picks, were multi-sport athletes as kids, according to Tracking Football.
That number corresponds to data from UCLA, where researchers surveyed NCAA Division I athletes. They found that 88 percent of them played an average of two to three sports when they were young. Seventy percent did not specialize in one sport until after age 12.
Coaches and teams at the highest levels of sports might prefer kids who played a variety of sports. Urban Meyer has won three national championships as a head coach in college football. Only five out of the 47 recent recruits he brought to Ohio State played only football in high school, according to ScholarshipStats.com. The other 42 played multiple sports in high school.
In Major League Baseball, more of the elite pitchers grew up in the North, while hitters come from all parts of the country. Studies have shown that pitchers who grew up in the South tend to suffer elbow injuries at a younger age and earlier in their careers than pitchers from the North or Midwest, presumably because they pitch all year long. Could pro teams be quietly avoiding the kids who specialize at an earlier age because of the damage they have already inflicted on their arms?
We know that specializing in only one sport increases the risk of injuries overall as well as serious overuse injuries that can lead to surgeries and long absences from the sport.
Injuries aren’t the only problem, though. Sport specialization has been cited as one of the leading factors in burnout from youth sports. Nearly 70 percent of kids quit organized sports by age 13. Sports specialization and burnout are part of that problem.
Parents and coaches should consider the benefits of playing multiple sports. By playing a variety of sports, children can develop agility and other physical skills they wouldn’t learn otherwise. They can learn techniques that can ultimately help them when they do decide to play one sport.
Brandi Chastain, star of the 1999 US Women’s National Team, uses a classroom analogy to make this point. “It's like going to school and only studying math or only studying English. There's a lot to each person, and you can't develop a full, well-rounded person with ultra-specialization at an early, early age.”
Here’s my advice to parents. Let your kids play different sports every season when they’re growing up. Let them find out on their own which sports they like and don’t like. Allow them to learn the skills, movements and techniques for each sport instead of focusing on winning and statistics. Later, when their bodies mature, they can pick just one sport to play if they choose.
Sports are great for our kids, but the way sports are played today can do more harm than good. We need to make youth sports healthy for our kids. Having them play a variety of sports growing up is a great way to do it.
Dr. Geier is an orthopedic surgeon in Charleston and creator of the HEALTHY Game Plan for youth sports. Find out more at DrDavidGeier.com/TEDxHEALTHY.