Written by FMS
After every championship game or major sports draft, data emerges supporting the benefits of a multi-sport background.
While multi-sport athletes aren’t nearly as prevalent in high school as they were a few decades ago, the voices and anecdotes around the virtues of sampling vs specialization are growing.
Hall of Fame athletes like John Smoltz and Wayne Gretzky are using large platforms to advocate against early sports specialization. Famed-surgeon Dr. James Andrews cautions parents and kids against the perils of playing one sport, even backing an awareness initiative.
Before becoming Masters champion and golf’s next megastar, Jordan Spieth played point guard and was a standout pitcher. Tom Brady was drafted as a catcher by the Montreal Expos out of high school. LeBron earned all-state honors at wide receiver as a sophomore. Physical traits like size, speed, explosiveness, coordination and kinesthetic awareness transfer from sport to sport.
While the justification for a multi-sport approach is sound, it’s important to acknowledge the data is probably a bit noisy. Did these athletes become great because they played multiple sports? Or did they play multiple sports because they were great athletes? Probably a little of both. Think about it. If wide receiver is running by DB’s on the football field, the track coach will probably be interested in having him on the 4 x 100m team. The size or athleticism that allows a volleyball player to play above the net would be useful on the basketball court. Endurance developed playing soccer will likely carry over to cross county. And so on… Gifted athletes have early success which likely encourages greater participation and recruitment.
That said, we do believe there are benefits to having a broad sports background that relate to the FMS philosophy.
1) Injuries Related To Overuse
Of all the potential pitfalls of early specialization, exposure to overuse injury is arguably the most perilous. A widely publicized study of 1,500 high school students in Wisconsin found that athletes specializing in one sport are 70 percent more likely to suffer an injury during their playing season than those who play multiple sports. The potential exposure is even greater in rotational sports like baseball and golf. It should be said, however, that the vast majority of studies don’t take into account the number of games an athlete is playing in a year or how they are training. Those are HUGE factors. An intelligent training program and reasonable competition period can go a long way in reducing exposure to overuse injuries (well said by Driveline Baseball here).
2) Movement Competency
A precursor to owning movement patterns is exploring those movement patterns. Youngsters who participate in a wide variety of activities are exposed to a wide variety of movement patterns in comparison to kids who are specializing in one sport (or, even worse, are sedentary). The association between movement variability and movement competency is observable at a young age too. A 2016 study found that gymnastics-like movement training improved stability and object control in kids with an average age of 8.
Additionally, limitations in mobility or stability may impede skill acquisition. As Dr. Michael Chivers states:
“If there are structural and/or physiological deficits in the joints involved in the skill to be learned, the process of motor learning cannot happen to the fullest extent. Skill acquisition is not about grooving a repeatable, symbolic representation of the skill. It’s about building the physical capacity first and then the coaching and technical applications of the skill based cognitive learning can aid in the acquisition process.”
3) Athletic Capacity
Want to increase your vertical? Try jumping more. Want to drop your 40 time? Research indicates that the best way to improve sprint speed is to practice sprinting. Again, it’s a bit of a chicken and egg conundrum, but one reason why basketball players jump well is because they jump a lot. Even if an athlete doesn’t end up playing competitive basketball, they will benefit from the explosiveness they learned from it, even if the sports look nothing alike. For example, Dr. Greg Rose and TPI have found that vertical leap is one of the athletic indicators of potential swing speed in golf. What’s one thing that some of the longest hitters in pro golf have in common? They all have a basketball background.
In conclusion, encouraging young athletes to play multiple sports won’t guarantee success or eliminate injuries, but encouraging kids to play multiple sports has the potential to improve movement quality, limit overuse and increase athletic capacity.
Dear Parents of Young Athletes,
One of the most important skills your child can learn from sports and training is how to struggle with something and eventually overcome it.
Unfortunately, it can be pretty difficult for us to watch our kids struggle, and our natural instinct is to help them so they don’t have to experience that pain. Trust me, I have a hard time with this as a dad, too, so I understand. It’s hard to watch my kids struggle and fail because it breaks my heart. But, kids grow exponentially faster, and become more resilient, when they learn how to work hard and struggle for something they want.
I recently heard Olympic figure skating champion Mark Hammill talk about the years leading up to his massive success. He said that all anyone ever wants to talk about are his successes, but he talked about how important it was for him to lose and fail over and over again before that. He talks about how it developed tenacity and a thirst for success because he hated the feeling of losing. The struggles are what turned him into a champion.
If we rush in to rescue our kids from every obstacle in their way, they’ll never learn how to do it for themselves, and they may never develop the grit it takes to succeed in any endeavor. We all know that life is full of obstacles, so we better help them learn how to overcome them.
As hard as it is to watch your child fail, teach them how to turn setbacks into comebacks. Michael Jordan often talks about how impactful it was for him to get cut from his high school basketball team. That year, he probably grew more than any other year of his life because he wanted to prove his coaches wrong. That setback helped him develop a mindset, attitude and work ethic that propelled him on to become one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Had he made that team, it’s possible that he would have never developed that spirit, and we might not even be talking about him.
There is a saying in sports that pretty much sums it all up – “skills from struggles.”
Growth comes when people are challenged just above their skill level. This forces us to learn something new, try a little harder, and understand things more thoroughly because we have to keep up with those around us who can already perform the task we’re struggling with. Of course, putting a child in a situation where they are completely over their head can be demoralizing, so it’s important to give kids appropriate challenges so they can feel a sense of accomplishment as they improve.
Kids who achieve early successes without having to work hard will often get passed up later in life as others learn how to work hard and overcome setbacks. Early achievers need larger challenges than others at a young age to keep them constantly improving rather than being satisfied with simply being better than kids on their team.
I’ve seen this happen many, many times in my career, and I even see it in very talented high school athletes who struggle mightily in college because they have never had to work extremely hard to keep up. They get very discouraged, their confidence drops, and they often end up giving up on the sport they were so good at when they were young.
I also see the parents of these kids get very frustrated and wonder what happened to their super-talented child.
The same principle applies to other areas of our lives such as academics, work, and social situations. We don’t necessarily need to “encourage” mistakes, but we often learn much more from difficult situations than when things are easy. Let your kids learn that they may fail a test if they don’t study. Let them have friends get angry if they aren’t good friends. Let them get fired from a job for not working hard. Let them sit on the bench when they don’t practice hard. Let them experience painful feelings.
And, don’t rush to rescue them from these difficult situations. You don’t have to pile on and ridicule them for making mistakes, but try to look at these struggles as opportunities for your kids to learn valuable skills. Just try to balance being “there for them” with letting them struggle.
So, while it may tear your heart out to watch your child struggle, it’s probably exactly what they need once in a while to help them learn how to dig down and figure out how to get better. This is probably going to hurt you more than them, so good luck with this….and wish me luck too.