Across the country, sport specialization continues to be popular within youth sports, as parents and young athletes chase athletic stardom and college scholarships. In some cases, athletes as young as 11 years old are being asked to sign ‘contracts’ where they commit to playing just one sport all year round. But the risks from this narrow-minded approach far outweigh the potential rewards, says Glen Mulcahy, a speaker with the Changing the Game project. His organization has found that children who specialize in sports at an early age run a far greater risk for burnout due to stress, decreased motivation, and lack of enjoyment.
"I have talked to many parents who have kids who quit sports because they were no longer having fun," Mulcahy notes. Mulcahy has coached hockey, baseball, football, and rugby for over 20 years, and now has two children who also participate in multiple sports. While youth sports remain popular, he points out that 70% of American youth quit organized sports by the age of 13. “If they had played multiple sports over shortened seasons, [many] would not have burned out from the same sport."
Consider Ryan Duffy as a good example of the benefits of staying a well-rounded athlete. A junior and three-sport standout at Minnesota's South Saint Paul High School, Duffy was a 170-pound Class AA state runner-up in wrestling in 2016 and finished third in the state as a sophomore. Last fall, he was an All-District football player (safety/WR) for a football team that went to the Class AAAA state championship game. And he's also a standout baseball pitcher who has verbally committed to play baseball at the University of Minnesota.
"I have never really thought about specializing in a single sport," Duffy says. "It never appealed to me as an athlete.” In fact, Duffy says the turnover in the athletic calendar helps to motivate him more.
"Instead of just training for the same sport, all of a sudden it’s a new season and that drive starts over," he explains. "I start to feel fresh again and it’s all business. Once the next season begins that’s my new focus and my goal never changes."
Duffy points out the numerous cross-training benefits that help him in all three sports. Wrestling helps with tackling in football and with mental toughness as a pitcher in baseball. "Having that never-back-down attitude on the mound is big help," he adds. The footwork needed to succeed in wrestling and football help with his speed and agility, as well as balance on the mound.
"I believe I benefit over kids who specialize because all three sports that I participate in complement each other,” Duffy says. “Instead of just training the same muscles [all year long], I work out many different ones for each sport. I believe this helps me grow and adapt more as an athlete."
Ryan's father, Mark, acknowledges that he felt the pull of specialization, worrying that without that single-sport focus Ryan would not get enough exposure to college scouts. Still, he encouraged his son to put off that decision as long as possible, and, ultimately, the choice to stick with all three sports paid off.
Duffy’s experience may seem the exception, but the reality is, many of today’s college coaches prefer athletes who played multiple sports in their youth. Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer has publicly stated that he prefers to recruit multi-sport athletes versus those who specialize. In this article, Dr. Rob Bell, a sports psychology coach, says multi-sport athletes have several advantages that make them more attractive—transfer of skills from sport-to-sport, higher sport IQs, less burnout, and learning how to compete. And as for the perspective of athletes currently competing at the college level, the results from the NCAA’s 2015 GOALS Study of the Student-Athlete Experience offers further evidence against specialization. That survey found many college athletes think youth athletes compete too often in their sport and they also expressed regret that they hadn’t spent more time trying other sports during their own youth.
Sam Snow, coaching director for US Youth Soccer, points out that specializing in a sport before the middle teen years can be counterproductive and often makes an athlete susceptible to physical breakdown at an early age.
"Early specialization can lead to over-use injuries from doing the same physical motions too often," Snow explains. "A young, developing body needs a variety of movements in order to become a well-rounded athlete. That athleticism will pay dividends in the late teen years and into adulthood."
Playing multiple sports also enhances what Snow calls physical literacy. "It’s about developing more than just motor skills," he explains. "It’s also a matter of developing the mindset to use those skills. Tactically, there is a transference of game concepts between sports, especially team sports. The benefits of multi-sport play at least through to the age of 16 will benefit a young person physically, emotionally, socially and strategically."
Nevertheless, sport specialization remains an ongoing trend, despite numerous high-profile examples to the contrary. Mulcahy points out that Wayne Gretzky, arguably the greatest hockey player of all time, also played baseball and lacrosse in his youth. Rising golf star Jordan Spieth told his parents at age 12 that he only wanted to focus on golf, but his parents discouraged him because they believed playing multiple sports, including team sports, would make him a better athlete and person. Spieth became a standout pitcher in baseball, point guard in basketball, and quarterback in football. And still turned into a world-class golfer.
"We are very lucky to live in a community and school that emphasizes multi-sport athletes,” says Mark Duffy of his son’s own experience. It really makes it fun year round and keeps our family involved in the community, he explains. And the benefits go both ways, he notes, since he strongly believes that playing multiple sports, including wrestling, has also helped Ryan develop as a complete athlete and a person.
"There is no way you can wrestle at a competitive level without having mental toughness and a strong core," says Mark Duffy. "Those two traits transfer over to any sport as well as life."