In this day and age when trophies and scholarships dominate youth athletics, kids are being pushed to specialize in a single sport as early as their pre-teen years. Driven by the professionalization of youth sports, coaches and parents alike have turned their focus to making kids young experts in their sport of choice.
"It'll help prevent injury," some explain. Others caution that without specialization, kids will "fall behind" or be unable to "play at the next level."
But these claims are nothing more than myths that are often at odds with the well-being of our children. In reality, countless benefits of playing multiple sports are being forgotten in the midst of the specialization craze. For starters, improving fitness, motivation, confidence and creativity. But perhaps more importantly: playing for the sake of the game itself and in doing so, having some plain and simple, old-fashioned fun.
It's time to put the myths to bed. In reality, kids only stand to gain from playing multiple sports. Here's why:
1. Specializing actually leads to greater chance of injuries.
Instead of sharpening their overall athleticism in a well-rounded way, specialized athletes are repeating the same movements with the same sets of muscles every day of the week. This has led to a dramatic rise in the need for Tommy John surgery and reconstructive surgery of elbow ligaments—to cite just two examples.
2. Sports skills and athletic movements transfer.
Jumping for a basketball works the same muscles swimmers use to push off the starting blocks and develop a strong kick. A full 87 percent of 2015 NFL draft picks were multi-sport athletes, and the average number of multi-sport athletes in the NFL hovers around 70 percent. It's not surprising when you consider that quickness, running, jumping, agility, throwing and countless other moves are all transferable skills.
3. Multi-sport athletes learn to compete.
Each sport requires its own unique levels of focus and resiliency. Some games, like baseball, are more drawn out and require long-term attention punctuated with quick action. Other sports are all about pacing and endurance. The broader the exposure young athletes get to these different conditions, the better. Resiliency and focus, too, are transferable skills.
4. Multi-sport athletes have a greater sports I.Q.
They develop a feel for any game they are playing. Ever heard about football players taking ballet classes? This helps not just to transfer athletic movements, but also to enhance their appreciation for different types of movements. Thanks to cross-training, multi-sport athletes are overall more creative and less mechanical in their approach.
5. Burnout becomes less frequent in multi-sport athletes.
It doesn't take long for kids to fizzle from going to five must-do showcase events and traveling every weekend in the summer. Ultimately, they stop enjoying the process. The balance and variety that comes from playing multiple sports offers keeps young athletes alert, engaged and, literally, on their toes.
6. Multi-sport athletes are better teammates.
They've got lots of experience at it! They're used to interacting with a variety of teammates and coaches within different contexts. This is priceless training for athletics of all sorts and life.
Remember, too: grit, tenacity and the will to compete are traits that transfer across all sports. In applying the essential lessons from one sport to others, kids are better athletes overall. Cultivating these while building character is the true purpose of youth sports, which above all serves as a metaphor for life.
Rob Bell, Ph.D., is a sport psychology coach and owner of DRB & Associates, where he works with athletes, coaches and teams, including at Notre Dame University, on achieving peak performance. He is the author of "Don't 'Should' On Your Kids: Build Their Mental Toughness," co-authored with Bill Parisi.