In an era where young athletes are pushed more and more to specialize in a sport, it’s important to take a step back and question whether that is truly the right decision for young athletes to be making.
Many argue that specializing in one sport gives kids a better opportunity to excel at their sport, giving them a better chance to get a collegiate athletic scholarship or play professionally. Likewise, many people worry that they will get injured during participation in their secondary different sport, which could affect the next season of their main sport. Before making assumptions about why athletes shouldn’t play multiple sports, it’s important to consider the benefits of playing multiple sports.
The assumption that athletes can’t improve their primary sport through playing other sports is simply false. Sports are bigger than the physical motions. Many would argue that the mental side of sports is as important, if not more important, than the physical side. Playing new sports helps athletes to think in new ways. For example, soccer players know the value of patience. A good soccer player knows that sometimes letting the play develop is the best route to success. This play could transfer that knowledge to basketball, where instead of driving every time on a fast-break play, they let their teammates catch up, leading to an open corner three.
On the other side, basketball can teach the soccer player that a well-timed cut can lead to a big play. Likewise, many skills overlap, such as change of direction, hand-eye coordination, playing under control, and being a good teammate, which means athletes can be constantly improving these skills in whatever sport they play.
Madi Chang is currently a basketball player at Biola University. Before becoming a Division II student-athlete, she also played softball in high school. While she did not choose to pursue both sports at the collegiate level, she acknowledges the role softball played in helping her reach the next level. She says that both sports helped improve her “speed, change of direction, and hand eye coordination”.
Outside of the athletic benefits, she appreciates the benefits being a multi-sport athlete brought to other areas of her life. Through playing multiple sports, she “definitely made a lot more friends and got to hang out with people that [she] wouldn’t have normally run into, especially in different grades than [hers].” She also credits both sports in helping her with time management.
“I’m more productive when I have a routine that involves practice or a sport or some sort of physical exercise most days, so playing sports throughout the whole school year helped me learn time management,” Chang said.
As for injuries, Dr. Tommy John, the son of former baseball star Tommy John for whom the “Tommy John surgery” is named after, wrote an article in 2018 discussing how playing multiple sports reduces the risk of injury, especially among young athletes. Dr. John cites in his article that “a study by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health which included more than 1,500 high school athletes found that athletes who specialized in one sport were twice as likely to report a lower extremity injury as compared to those who played multiple sports”.
He also notes that “ACL surgeries in six-to-18-year-olds are up 60 percent during the past 20 years, and more than 57 percent of all ‘Tommy John Surgeries’ are being performed on 15 to 19-year-olds,” which is in part due to the current push for athletes to specialize in one sport.
Orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist Dr. David Geier argues that “any sport involves repetitive motions. Over time, those motions cause stress that can build up and cause overuse injuries. By allowing a kid to play different sports, stress is limited to one region of the body for a few months. The next sport then works other body parts”. It’s clear from a medical standpoint that specializing in one sport leads to a much greater chance of injury than diversifying athletic activities.
Nicole Phaneuf, a Division I multi-sport student-athlete at Tulane University, knows all too well that specialization can lead to injury. A member of the cross country and track teams, she battled injuries early on in her collegiate athletic career and missed most of her freshman track season. After going through a tough physical therapy regiment, which consisted of swimming and strength training, she learned how making strides in other sports can help her with her literal strides on the track.
After recovering, she began to take her weight training much more seriously and seeing impressive results from it. She found herself much stronger and competing at the highest level she ever has in her career. She believes her lifting “helps to prevent injury while also improving performance at [her] sports.”
“I take my lifting very seriously now– much more than most Division I athletes. Obviously, I tone it down during the season so that it doesn’t negatively affect my running, but I certainly notice my performance increase in correlation to the work I put into the weight room during the off-season,” Phaneuf said. “It also just makes me feel good to be strong.”
Photo Credit: Shutterstock (header); article photos courtesy of Madi Chang and Nicole Phaneur