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Early Sport Specialization

A common trend among young athletes (and parents) today is choosing a sport to specialize in early. It seems logical that focusing on one sport all year long would give them the best opportunity to secure a Division 1 scholarship in a more and more competitive field. While this may be tempting to get your child noticed by coaches or to get them more practice throughout the year, many great athletes credit playing other sports with helping them be a better athlete at their main sport.

By playing the same sport all year kids are more prone to overuse injuries, and they aren’t able to develop general athleticism required to play multiple sports. It’s hard to argue that a hopeful tight end in football wouldn’t benefit by playing center in basketball where he would have to go up and grab the ball above his opponents in the paint. By developing skills in other sports, they are more able to use them in the sport that they care about most where the demand is different. A hockey player that has the footwork of a soccer player is at an advantage against a hockey player with no soccer background.

Kobe Bryant believes that his great court vision comes from growing up in Italy playing soccer where he had to see the game in combinations of three or four moves. “Most of the time, American basketball is only taught in twos: 1-2, pick and roll, or give and go, or something like that,” Bryant said.

Many other great professional athletes played other sports in high school. Lebron James played wide receiver for his high school football team, Derek Jeter played point guard on his high school basketball team, and Odell Beckham Junior grew up playing soccer. If a few famous athletes claiming it helped them isn’t enough to convince you (it shouldn't be), look at the research.

A review of the literature in 2013 determined that “For most sports, there is no evidence that intense training and specialization before puberty are necessary to achieve elite status. Risks of early sports specialization include higher rates of injury, increased psychological stress, and quitting sports at a young age.” A 2019 study of 303 Division 1 college athletes across 19 sports showed that “94.7% of specialized athletes had previously played another organized sport prior to college, and 45% of athletes had played multiple sports up to age 16 years.”

The younger that a child is the more sports they should play. As they grow older and have developed more as an athlete specialization makes more sense. An athlete should not play a sport for more than 6-8 months a year before they are 16 years old.


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