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Multisport or Specialization: Which Is Best?

By Next College Student Athlete, 08/07/18, 12:00PM CDT

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Playing multiple sports gives athletes time to heal and develop different muscle groups

After all the practices, skill development and games growing up, they get sick of their sport by the time college comes around. Multisport athletes are more likely to retain their love of the game.

The debate between multisport versus sports specialization shows no signs of abating.

Is it realistic to expect that student-athletes can play multiple sports and not fall behind in their schoolwork? Can student-athletes reach the highest level of sports excellence without applying themselves solely to one sport? Does sports specialization increase the risk of injuries and burnout?

THE CASE FOR STICKING TO ONE SPORT

What is sports specialization? The term refers to athletes who dedicate themselves to playing one sport. There are several compelling reasons why it can be beneficial for athletes to specialize in one sport.

Earlier peak performance. For sports such as gymnastics, an athletes’ peak performance is reached in adolescence. Experts agree that specialization enables these athletes to compete in their sport when it matters most.

“Age-group” success. Specialization may be the best way for athletes to experience “age-group” success. This means if it’s a young baseball player’s dream to win the Little League World Series, committing to baseball by the age of 6 or 7 is a way to gain success in this age group.

Access to top coaches through elite clubs. Elite clubs and programs attract elite coaches. By focusing on one sport from a young age, athletes have access to best-in-class instruction and resources that players develop the skills they need to play their sport at the highest level.

Time plus effort equals success. The “10,000-hour rule,” popularized by bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell, states that it takes 10 years or 10,000 practice hours to reach the highest level of performance. Many early specialization advocates cite this rule as another competitive edge gained by specialization. If athletes start intense, focused training before the age of 12, chances are, they’ll hit that 10,000-hour mark much sooner than a multi-sport athlete.

THE CASE FOR MULTISPORT ATHLETES

Instead of committing to one sport, multisport athletes participate in a range of activities. Being a multisport athlete has many advantages — and some of them might surprise you.

Experience long-term success. Consistent performers with fewer injuries, multi-sport athletes actually tend to experience longer-term success over their one-sport peers. They also have a much higher chance of being active adults.

Limit overuse injuries. Playing multiple sports gives athletes time to heal and develop different muscle groups, tendons and ligaments. With the rise in overuse injuries in youth sports, this is an important point to consider. A recent American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine study also pointed out that sports specialization could lead to more lower extremity injuries.

Less pressure, less burnout. Burnout is a real problem for athletes who specialize too early. After all the practices, skill development and games growing up, they get sick of their sport by the time college comes around. Multisport athletes are more likely to retain their love of the game.

Accumulate cross-sport skills. Multisport athletes gain different kinds of skills that they can apply from one sport to the next. This enhances hand-eye coordination, balance, endurance, explosion, communication and athletic agility. Who wouldn’t want the speed of a sprinter with the hand-eye coordination of a baseball player on their team?

READ MORE: Specialization isn’t always the best scenario

WHICH IS BEST FOR YOUR ATHLETE?

The answer, not surprisingly, is that it depends. In what sport does your athlete hope to achieve success? Do they want to bring home that Little League Baseball World Championship trophy? Consider specializing early. To run track in college, on the other hand, doesn’t require as much need to focus or specialize.

Families often feel the pressure to lean one way or the other. You can use the data to make an informed decision that will help your student-athlete achieve their definition of sports success. Plus, do your own research. Talk to other parents and current college players. Talk to your athlete! Ask prospective college coaches what they prefer to see from their recruits.

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