Should Young Athletes Focus On One Or More Sports?

Young athletes benefit their skills in any sport by playing a multitude of sports. A young athlete does not need to be exposed to a single sport to get optimal stimulation and skill development for his/her age.

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I have had the opportunity to interview and talk to many different coaches as part of my work with www.SportSpecific.com and through my own website www.TrainingYoungAthletes.com, but recently I have had interactions with several coaches that have truly changed the way I train athletes and how I look at the long term development of conditioning young athletes.

If you have ever heard my interviews with professionals like Brian Grasso, Alwyn Cosgrove, Joe DeFranco, and Larry Jusdanis, among others, you know that they (and I) recommend that young athletes participate in a lot of different sports at a young age. I have always believed that a young athlete benefits their skill in any sport by playing a multitude of sports. I have always believed that a young athlete does not need to be exposed to a single sport a lot to get optimal stimulation and skill development for his/her age.

And I still believe that - even more so.

What is different is that I understand why much more clearly than ever.

I have learned this, in part, in my own practice and through discussions with professionals in the field such as the one's listed above as well as Dave Tate of www.EliteFTS.com and Christian Thibaudeau who writes for www.t-mag.com.


Development Of Young Athletes

I noticed that athletes under the age of 11 (in general) would report greater quickness and speed by doing things such as agility drills on an agility ladder and non-specific drills such as 5-10-5 agility runs. However, most athletes over the age 14 reported they did not feel like it helped their speed and quickness.

Learn More About Agility Training...

Also, it is well known that early stages of learning a new sport skill can have transfer to other sports. However, later in the athlete's career, this is no longer the case. Skill development remains specific to his/her sport.

Developing The Multidimensional Athlete.
Simple conditioning skills start to develop as an infant. You learn to do very basic skills, and as you mature, the programming becomes more complicated as do the movements.

To make this more clear, let me use a real life example. An 8 year old soccer player can likely improve his or her soccer skills by playing softball or tennis, and vice versa, but an 18 year old cannot.

Ok - So how does that affect a young athlete and how he/she develops in a sport?

Well, the answer to that question is more complex, but I will do the best I can to explain.

Let's say a 9 year old baseball player has the potential to learn and master 10 new baseball skills by the time he is 18 just by playing baseball all the time, but in order to get a college scholarship, he will need to learn and master 15 skills.

If all he does is play baseball, he will learn and master those 10 and then come to a halt. Conventional thinking would tell us to go to another baseball clinic or camp, or work with this coach or that coach, but to no avail.

He used up his potential.


Sports Diversity At A Young Age

Now let's say the same athlete participates in 3 different sports and plays a multitude of other physical activities during the course of the year in the form of non-competitive play.

Just by virtue of playing the other sports, he now learns and masters 6 of the 15 skills he needs to get that college scholarship, but since he developed them by doing other activities, he has the potential to learn and master 10 specific to baseball - a total of 16. Now he gets his scholarship. He is happier because he has not burned himself out by playing the same thing all the time at a young age, and his parents are thrilled that they saved a lot on college tuition.

Training Youths For A Sound Future In Athletics.
The trend today in youth sports is an intense specialization in a single sport. Parents increasingly are looking at their young children trying to identify what the best sport is for their young athlete.
[ Click here to learn more. ]

I know of a 9 year old athlete (which is why I used that example) that spent $2500 in baseball clinics one summer. He was a good hitter (he hit .385 in his little league) and wanted to get better. After 3 clinics, he hit .383 the following year. It is not that the clinics were bad, necessarily, they may have been great for an 18 year old, but they were inappropriate for his age.

Why did he work so hard for no benefit? He and his dad fell into the trap of thinking if some practice is good, more is better. But remember, a young athlete, especially one that is below the age of 14, does not need a great deal of exposure to a sport to get optimal results.

This athlete did not have the ability to hit like his instructors were teaching him - he was too young, not strong or powerful enough, and did not have the motor skill.

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He would have been far better off running, jumping, playing, etc. with his buddies as this would have developed those abilities he lacked better than the baseball clinics. Then, in a few years, he would have gotten a lot more out of the clinics.


Getting The Most Out Of Clinics

In this case, he participated in a good clinic (his magic bullet) that taught him some new things. But he had poor timing (he was too young to benefit at that time). He ended up frustrated thinking he "just couldn't get it".

Another drawback of doing the clinics so early was that he was introduced to the stimulus which made it less effective later on. Think of any drill as having a certain level of ability to bring about skill improvement.

The earlier you expose an athlete to the drill, the less effective it becomes later on in actually developing the skill you want. Also, because the athlete often lacks the strength and motor control to perform the drill properly at such a young age, he is more likely to develop bad habits than he is to get benefit from the drill.

Learn More About Motor Skills...

Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence. A parent or coach thinks a young athlete shows particular promise at a certain sport, the parent or the athlete himself tries harder and harder to develop the skills to improve in the sport even more, then the potential talent is ruined before any high level of play begins.

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In baseball camps you can learn how to improve your
pitching, baserunning, hitting, and catching skills.

Please do not misunderstand, I have no problem with sport camps or clinics, but my baseball player would have been better off doing nothing or going to a clinic that was more basic in scope.

Then he could attend the clinic 5 or 6 years later and develop the new techniques more completely.


Conclusion

The Moral Of This Story:

  • Don't think that you will get better at a sport by doing more and more of it. Too much focus on a single sport only leads to burn out, injury, and inconsistent performance later on. As a young athlete, you only need a small amount of exposure to a sport to get the most skill development at a particular time. Don't try to rush your development.

    You may have wonderful skill and be better than anyone else on your team or in your area at a given sport, but beyond a certain level of exposure you will not get better and may risk getting worse - or at least limiting your ability to improve later on in your athletic career.

    Play your sport, but play others as well. Don't do any one thing all the time.

How Many Sports Should A Young Child Focus On?

Only One Sport.
Multiple Sports.

  • Strength, flexibility, and stability are the foundation of speed, power, agility and so on. Speed, power and agility are the foundation of sport skill. Focus your efforts at getting stronger, faster and more agile. Do non-sport related activities that will ultimately help you in the sport of your choice.

In part 2 of this article, I will discuss the use of the magic bullet as it applies to strength training and conditioning.

Part 1 | Part 2