In March, Trent Klatt coached Minnesota's Grand Rapids High School hockey team to the most coveted team title in Minnesota high school sports: the 2A state hockey championship. Klatt, from Brooklyn Park, grew up playing youth hockey in Minnesota, and spent 14 seasons in the NHL. After winning that coveted state title, Klatt's message to his players was the same message he had in this 2014 USA Hockey interview: “Put the hockey equipment in the rafters and go play ball.”
Klatt grew up playing football, hockey and baseball and is a firm believer in the multi-sport athlete. He told USA Hockey even NHL players need a break from playing the same sport 12 months a year.
“It took everything I possibly had to get through every phase of the season, whether it was July or December,” he says. “I just don’t think kids are capable of doing it. I think they get burnt out and I think they quit. And one of the biggest things that happens—they get hurt. That’s when their bodies start to break down and they start to get hurt. I know; mine did.”
Imagine moving your arm in the same direction over and over, for many years, says Mike Clayton, Manager of USA Wrestling’s National Coaches Education Program. Now put your child into that situation during a time when their bodies are growing and changing.
"What do you think would happen?” Clayton asks.
Bodies need time to heal, allow for that change, rest, and grow, he says.
“Specializing in one sport at a young age increases injury rates, creates too much pressure on young people to win, and actually hinders athletic development,” Clayton says.
A 2016 study by the National Federation of State High School Associations, conducted with the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, found that high school athletes who specialize in a single sport sustain lower-extremity injuries at significantly higher rates than athletes who do not specialize in one sport. Lower-extremity injuries were defined as any acute, gradual, recurrent or repetitive-use injury to the lower musculoskeletal system. The study, conducted throughout the 2015–16 school year at 29 Wisconsin high schools involving more than 1,500 student-athletes equally divided between male and female participants, also generated these findings:
- Athletes who specialized in one sport were twice as likely to report previously sustaining a lower-extremity injury while participating in sports (46 percent) than athletes who did not specialize (24 percent).
- Specialized athletes sustained 60 percent more new lower-extremity injuries during the study than athletes who did not specialize.
- Athletes who specialize were twice as likely to sustain a gradual, onset/repetitive-use injury than athletes who did not specialize.
- The most commonly reported injuries were muscle or ligament sprains (59.4 percent), mostly to ankles or knees.
This is one of many studies related to the dangers of sports specialization conducted in recent years. All come to the same conclusion: Multi-sport participation can lead to better performance, less burnout, less social isolation, and most importantly, more lifelong enjoyment in sports.
“I think it is very healthy for our youth and high school wrestlers to participate in an array of sports,” says Steve Costanzo, head coach of the NCAA Division II powerhouse St. Cloud State University wrestling program. “Learning life principles is really what athletics is all about. It’s about preparing yourself with real-life scenarios while enjoying the competition and play. Athletics provides opportunities for kids to grow socially in a unique way while growing their lives in a positive direction.”
USA Wrestling created its Athletic Development Model (download this cool poster) breaking down athlete training standards by age group for wrestlers, parents, and coaches. The bottom line? Let kids be kids.
“Kids need time to climb trees and do things on their own, without adult supervision,” Clayton says. “When we do allow them to participate in organized sports, we recommend no more organized practice/competition each week than their age. That means a 5-year-old would not practice/compete more than five hours per week.”
John O'Sullivan is the Founder and CEO of the Changing The Game Project, the mission of which is to ensure that we return youth sports to our children, and put the ‘play’ back in ‘play ball.’ O'Sullivan wrestled until eighth grade, played and coached collegiate and professional soccer, coached youth club and high school soccer, and wrote the book Is It Wise to Specialize?: What Every Parent Needs to Know About Early Sports Specialization and its Effect Upon Your Child’s Athletic Performance.
“Research shows that the benefits of participating in multiple sports far outweigh the benefits of early specialization, especially when you are looking at long-term participation in a sport,” O'Sullivan says. “If you want your child to win the sprint and be a 10-year-old champion, by all means, go all in young. But if you want your child to participate in high-school or college wrestling, slow down and let him or her seek out their own path.”
Early specialization can lead to over-use injuries from doing the same physical motions too often, says Sam Snow, Coaching Director for US Youth Soccer, a non-profit and educational organization whose mission is to foster the physical, mental and emotional growth and development of America's youth through the sport of soccer. “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.”
Snow says young athletes and teenagers also need to learn about Physical Literacy, which according to the Pacific Institute for Sports Excellence, is the mastering of fundamental movement skills and fundamental sport skills that permit a child to read their environment and make appropriate decisions, allowing them to move confidently and with control in a wide range of physical activity situations.
“Physical literacy requires the development of more than motor skills,” Snow says. “It’s also a matter of developing the mindset to use those skills. Humans need variety, and too much of only one sport will lead to mental exhaustion, boredom, poor decisions during competition, and then eventually to a lack of drive, which could lead to burnout and dropout.”
Spring is the time of year when many wrestlers transition from folkstyle wrestling to freestyle and Greco-Roman. Because both styles allow kids to move at different paces and use different body positions, this is similar to competing in a different sport, Clayton says.
“What would concern me about allowing a young athlete to wrestle all styles all year round would be using weight cutting techniques to help gain a competitive edge,” Clayton says. “Allow kids to wrestle the summers at their natural healthy weight.”
What it comes down to is balance, having fun, learning life lessons, and creating memories from participating in multiple sports.
“The benefits of multisport play, at least through to the age of 16, will benefit a young person physically, emotionally, socially and strategically,” Snow says.
Other coaches agree.
“Participating in multiple sports creates a balance in one’s life, and teaches them how to succeed, not just in one area, but in multiple areas,” Costanzo says. “Athletics is really all about doing your best in everything in life while developing a variety of motor learning and social learning skills.”