By looking at the pro ranks, you might think that the multi-sport athlete is in decline.
Sure, there’s Russell Wilson and Tim Tebow, who have made a go of it in minor league baseball, but it’s been nearly 30 years since Bo Jackson was an All-Star in Major League Baseball and averaged more than five yards per carry in the National Football League.
But what Bo knew back then is alive and well today: that athletes excel when they play multiple sports. This philosophy is now so widespread that it just seems like common sense. The more skills an athlete practices, the stronger and more athletic they become overall.
But maybe this conventional wisdom has gone too far. Perhaps there are cases in which an athlete benefits from identifying their best sport early and mastering it as best they can. For every Dave Winfield drafted in three professional sports, there is a Tiger Woods laser-focused since the age of 2 on becoming the best there ever was.
What's your take?
Take 1: Variety Is the Spice of Life
Studies have shown that the benefits to kids playing multiple sports are many. Softball is just one example. And the benefits are just as much mental as they are physical.
Athletes who play multiple sports in their youth get help managing their lives and having a sense of balance. Not only are they using different thought processes for each activity, they acquire different groups of friends and meet different people. And that variety of experiences leads to less burnout and dissatisfaction.
Physically, variety makes athletes stronger. Going from swimming to ice hockey to basketball uses all different muscles, helping an athlete increase his or her overall athleticism. And keeping all one’s muscles working means there is less risk of an injury due to overuse and repetitive movement. A rotator cuff can only take so many rotations.
If there is any one statistic that can indicate the value of playing multiple sports, it’s 93. Despite the big-name examples above, 93 percent of high school athletes do not go on to college sports, much less the pros. While early sport specialization might help a generational talent, the vast majority of his or her peers will be done a disservice by being encouraged to specialize too early.
Take 2: Zero in From Day One
Playing multiple sports has some benefits, but if athletes truly want to be the best, they have to start early. A majority of Division I athletes in numerous sports specialized at an early age, including women’s gymnastics, in which 87 percent had specialized by age 12. The same is true for 75 percent of women’s tennis players and 55 percent of men’s ice hockey players.
The fact is that if an athlete has talent, he or she should be competing in adolescence when many athletes are at peak performance. It may be riskier, but if an athlete wants to reach the elite levels of his or her age group, it takes practice from an early age. And the earlier an athlete can stand out, the better. Coaches and recruiters are watching at earlier and earlier ages.
It is often said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice for someone to master an activity. It doesn’t take advanced math to realize that if an athlete is dividing their hours across several sports, it is going to take significantly longer to reach that point than if they specialize early. Sometimes the early bird really does get the worm.
Have Your Say
Is it the multi-sport way or the highway? Or does it take specializing to realize an athlete’s true potential? And if it’s a case-by-case basis, how does a coach know which is right for which athlete? Sound off in the comments below.
From GameChanger and Todd Kortemeier