Should Kids Play Only One Sport To Achieve Athletic Excellence?

I have written several posts about the role of youth sports in our society, and the impact parental decisions have on our children’s social development.   When I was a child, I played multiple sports.   I played soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring (as well as tennis socially but could not play competitively due to the overlap with baseball).  I even picked up golf in high school and continue to play from time to time.   I played travel baseball in the summer and could still play for my school in the spring.  I chose not to play club soccer until late high school, but many of my soccer teammates played on a club team yet could still play for their school team.   Our soccer team was one of the top teams in NJ, and one of my teammates who was an All-American/NJ Player of the Year, played multiple sports as well.  We all did it, and I was fortunate to have a successful Division I baseball career.

Keep in mind that these are all team sports, not individual ones.   So this writer has no experience watching someone develop as a track star, a gymnast, a tennis player, or even a golfer.   However, as a parent, I have been troubled by the increasing emphasis on only one sport.  Several parents tell me that it is their kids that make the decision to do this, and we are seeing the European model of soccer, for example, now championed by Jurgen Klinsmann, taking hold in the United States.   We are creating “development academies” which are supposed to act as a feeder into the MLS or national team.   Their caveat:   they “own” you for 10 months, where you are not permitted to play for your school or play any other sport.

For a long time, I felt my concerns about focusing on one sport were simply my own opinions, nothing more and nothing less.   But earlier today, an article appeared on one of my social media feeds about this exact issue.  Written by a personal trainer, it presents a compelling case about the moral hazard of one sport focus.   Take this quote by Wayne Gretzky:

I played everything.  I played lacrosse, baseball, hockey, soccer, track & field.  I was a big believer that you played hockey in the winter and when the season was over you hung up your skates and you played something else.

Many of our most successful athletes:   Tom Brady, Michael Jordan, Deion Sanders, Bo Jackson to name a few – all played multiple sports.  What I found interesting about the article was that it talked about the “carryover” that certain sports have on others; for example, the favorable impact of sprinting on your golf swing.   In addition, Ohio State Football Coach Urban Meyer recruits nearly all multiple-sport athletes!

I worry about burnout with one sports athletes.  I worry about injuries.   Could focusing on one sport have any correlation to the alarmingly high increase in Tommy John surgeries with pitchers?  Or the number of torn ACLs in high school.

Kids need to a diverse set of experiences in their formative years.  Sports should first of all be fun, not a chore.   But yet we are all guilty of facilitating this cycle of one sport focus if you want to reach the pinnacle of the sport.  That is simply not true.   Perhaps we should take a hard look at this issue and get some empirical research to support such concerns.  I have no doubt the research will corroborate my opinion.    It’s time to act on this, for the sake of our kids.

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