“You must play only one sport.”
“You cannot play only one sport.”
What a difference one word makes! The first statement implies that the athlete must specialize and do nothing else. The sec
ond statement indicates that playing only one sport is not allowed. Both statement are heading the wrong direction.
It is easy to look down upon the parent or coach who
highly encourages demands that an athlete devote their life to one sport. And rightly so. We know that specializing in one sport too early can be problematic in terms of health, and potentially adverse to their ultimate peak performance (see footnote below). This is especially the case when the child or young adult has a desire to participate in something else. Childhood is short. Life is short. Kids can and should be encouraged to do what is healthy and fun for them. Anyone who demands that someone play exclusively one sport is off the mark and in serious want of perspective.
It has become common to criticize all single sport athletes in a similar vein. But what about the serious athlete who does not want to play another sport? Now more than ever, parents and athletes are asking for one year-round sport. If an organization does not offer it, they travel elsewhere, presumably to a place that takes the sport “more seriously.”
But what if truly respecting the total athlete, including their health and recovery, will ultimately help them reach the highest level in their *focus* sport?
“Club X doesn’t play year-round, they must not be too serious.”
Needs to be changed to…
“Club X doesn’t play year-round, they must be seriously smart.”
It is ideal for a young single sport athlete to play something else as well. Taking life in seasons, with a mental and physical shift, is a good thing for anyone. A break will do wonders for perspective and physical ability. Or, to put it in more marketable terms;
What if gaining The Edge has to do with staying active but shifting gears, experiencing a different role (possibly not the star), and generally having a rhythm to the year? I keep saying that the next “Big Thing” in sports performance is to truly, like REALLY, optimize and respect recovery rather than just giving it lip service.
But let’s say the child, c
oach, or parent is still not convinced of the value of another activity. Do we strong-arm them into it? No way! Being a single sport athlete can be done poorly and can be done well. Single-sport athlete done poorly looks like playing with intensity 4 seasons per year. Leagues, tournaments, showcases, you-name-it, YES to all’ve it. Let’s fire it up and be perpetually ahead! And if there is a week off, let’s train twice per day, three, no, four times as hard!
Again, going hard in one sport year-round is not ideal. It increases the likelihood of injury and by no means guarantees a better athlete. A component of dominating may indeed be taking a (relative) break from that sport. Ironically, Single-sport athlete done poorly may also look like sitting around for three months playing X-box. Both of these extremes result in sub-optimal performance at best.
So to answer the question, specializing in one sport is not a bad idea, so long as it’s done well. Single Sport Athlete Done Well involves:
-Identifying a peak season or event(s) and planning a build-up to it
-Paying great respect to the stress-recovery process
-Acknowledging that being a single-sport athlete can be an advantage (more skill work and experience) so long as there are seasons of low physical and psychological stress.
-Focusing on moderate-intensity deliberate skill practice in the off season.
-Filling the off seasons with ancillary activities that specifically match the needs of the athlete to the demands of the sport. May I suggest a focus on targeted resistance training and conditioning as your “off season sport?”
My sons have caught soccer fever. The free time once reserved for fishing, basketball, flag football, biking, swimming, or practicing flips in the back yard is now ALL filled with juggling, playing small-sided games, arguing about small-sided games, soccer practices, and actual league games.
If they wish to play only soccer, I will attempt to sporadically distract them with many serious and structured training techniques such as mountain biking, hiking, swimming, and obstacle courses. Later I will encourage them to hit the weights with methods that specifically support soccer.
In summary, single sport athletes need to understand the process of consistent effort and recovery.
They need to understand specific ways that they can improve at their sport for each day and season without playing the sport each day and season.
They need to learn the value of training to build resiliency, improve movement efficiency, and work on weak areas, but without involving the exact same physical stresses of the sport.
They need reminders and perspective to keep having fun, enjoying the process of working toward a greater end, and building life skills that transfer beyond the field.
Risks of being a single-sport athlete (presumably) DONE POORLY
Adult Inactivity: A study by Ohio State University found that children who specialized early in a single sport led to higher rates of adult physical inactivity. Those who commit to one sport at a young age are often the first to quit, and suffer a lifetime of consequences.
Overuse Injury: In a study of 1200 youth athletes, Dr Neeru Jayanthi of Loyola University found that early specialization in a single sport is one of the strongest predictors of injury. Athletes in the study who specialized were 70% to 93% more likely to be injured than children who played multiple sports!
Burnout: Children who specialize early are at a far greater risk for burnout due to stress, decreased motivation and lack of enjoyment.