Youth sports: One or all?

I wasn’t feeling particularly loquacious on this Wednesday, so to cure my writer’s block, I turned to you. I’ve decided not to limit myself to one article today. Instead, I plan to write a reply to each of the responses I receive.


An excellent question, and one that's had quite a few "right answers" in the last two decades. Although the answer that I will provide below is technically just my opinion, I feel like I've been around long enough to see which route usually has a better result.

Focusing on a single sport as a kid was the wave of the future at the beginning of the 2000s. I don't know if coaches and parents had a collective hangover from all the dehydrated food they had to eat after their bomb shelters proved useless for Y2K, but if you wanted to be taken seriously as an athlete and have a prospective career beyond high school, coaches would tell kids to drop all their other sports, hire a personal coach, and train at one sport 12 months a year. Pretty sound thinking, right? Focus on the skills that will make you a better athlete in that one sport you really love, and you’ll be a stud.

But you’ll also be a cautionary tale.

As more and more kids started training this way, they began developing more specialized (and preventable) injuries. Rotator cuff tears in pitchers, knee problems in basketball players, and so on and so forth. All that specialization and repeated use of the same muscles in the same manner wreaked havoc the bodies of athletes, particularly young ones trying to play the game at the next level. Your four-star setter recruit won’t do any good on the bench because her elbow is macaroni salad.

So what’s the easiest way to prevent this from happening? Letting making the kids play more sports again. Balance their schedules to allow them to become well-rounded athletes who can rip a 65-mph rise ball in June and shred through the pool in January. Using the same muscles in different ways or using different muscles altogether while throwing in strength and conditioning routines and eating wisely is the ultimate way for kids to become truly spectacular athletes with bodies that can learn to withstand the strain of playing sports.

How often do you hear about kids coming through high school sports who don’t just dominate one sport, but two or three or more? Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Brown was a fullback for the Cleveland Browns, but in college he also excelled at lacrosse, track, and basketball. Jim Thorpe played lacrosse, professional football, basketball and baseball, won Olympic gold medals in the 1912 Olympics for decathlon and pentathlon, and was a 1912 intercollegiate ballroom dancing champion.

Both Thorpe and Brown excelled in a time before specialized training and scientific research because they played a variety of sports that had different physical and mental demands. Deion Sanders, Tim Tebow, Michael Jordan, Lolo Jones and Bo Jackson are more athletes that demonstrate the advantages of being a multi-sport athlete well beyond the formative years.

In conclusion, not all kids can be a star, regardless of how many sports they play. But the ones who are – especially in adolescence – excel at not just one, but several. And it’s not by accident. 

Thanks for the question, Uncle Jeff.

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