Is Single-Sport Specialization or Multi-Sport Training Better for Youth Athletes?

Young children can gain a lot from early exposure to sports — they experience a myriad of physical, mental, and emotional benefits by staying active and interacting with fellow youth athletes from such a young age.

However, while many parents recognize the positives of youth sports, they often wonder what the best approach is in order for their child to make the most out of their activities, especially as the landscape becomes increasingly competitive.

Which then begs the question: should youth athletes focus on single-sport specialization, or would they benefit more from practicing multiple sports?

Well, question no longer!

Let’s break down the schools of thought behind both approaches and how your youth athletes may benefit from either.

What is Single-Sport Specialization?

Well, the name is pretty much a dead giveaway: it’s when youth athletes focus on one specific sport so they can specialize their athletic skill set in that particular activity.

Most parents or coaches who encourage single-sport specialization will start kids out from a young age, averaging around 6-8 years old. The idea is that building true skill and expertise takes a long time to develop, so the earlier you start athletes on that path, the higher likelihood they’ll have of mastering their activity and achieving success.

(Photo by: Tim Ireland / Associated Press)

Take athletes like Tiger Woods, or Venus and Serena Williams — they all started out quite young, and now they’re revered, world-class athletes in their sport.

Understandably, their astounding success has inspired many people to take the same approach for their own youth athletes.

To do it well, though, there are several important factors to account for…

Best Practices for Single-Sport Specialization

If you want your child to become a prodigy in a specific sport, all they have to do is spend all their time on it, right?

In theory, yes.

However, while that logic is sound, the research says otherwise. 

When youth athletes replicate a particular set of movement patterns from such a young age, their movement stays limited within those specific skill sets and abilities. This has the potential to cause pain or injury as a result of overtraining or overuse, so training diversification is necessary even within sport-specialization.

Keep in mind: diversifying their training isn’t taking away from their specialization! It’s an external supplement to ensure that your athletes have sufficient strength and movement control to maintain optimal performance for their sport of choice.

Basic cross-training options like yoga, pilates, or weight training can give the athlete a more well-rounded movement foundation. Not only will this enhance their muscular development and coordination, but these alternative training methods can help them address potential movement deficiencies that otherwise wouldn’t have been caught.

With more neuromuscular diversity and experience, youth athletes are able to develop more neuromotor pathways with various movements and sports. Diversity of motor knowledge improves their reactionary skills and ability to plan movements through highly dynamic activity.

Additionally, it’s highly beneficial to facilitate honest conversations about how their body is responding to the sport. With youth to pre-teen athletes, encourage them to talk about their mood and general motivation levels to see how they feel about their training! And, if you notice they’re having trouble sleeping or are lacking in energy, check in to see if their training may be a contributing factor.

As your athletes get a little older, they can start tracking these components in a journal. Start by tracking what their training plans look like alongside their moods and motivation, and consider adding aspects like sleep patterns and energy levels over time.

In particular, if there’s a noticeable drop in mood or motivation, perhaps the athlete is experiencing stagnation in their training — your program may need more variety, whether that be different kinds of supplemental training or simply some more challenge to their current routine.

Important Considerations for Youth Athlete Specialization

With all this being said, it’s important to remember: though there are benefits for youth athletes to develop a highly specific, specialized skill, it’s not guaranteed to be the best approach for everyone.

One of the biggest priorities that can often get lost in the weeds is whether or not your child truly enjoys specializing in one sport.

This isn’t to say that coaches or parents are neglectful in listening to their child — more so, there can be a lot of subconscious pressure for the athlete to always do well or always surpass their teammates to be the absolute best in their sport.

And without realizing, this can make a subtle but substantial impact on whether or not they enjoy what they do.

It’s important to encourage young athletes to voice their opinions to ensure that they’re having a healthy experience with their activity! Facilitate open conversations about what their goals look like, as well as what they do or don’t enjoy about their sport. The more time adults spend listening to their athletes, the more awareness and trust can be built into the training and relationship over time.

This becomes especially important as you consider the mental effects of sport specialization. Many parents will assume or speak for their youth athletes, claiming that they love their sport — which they often do, until they hit a certain threshold.

Much research has shown that a significant percentage of youth athletes get burnt out by the end of high school as a result of specialization. Because they’ve been hyperfocused on the activity for so long, they either don’t want to dedicate time to it during college, or they want to drop it altogether out of exhaustion.

On a psychological level, it’s understandable why many youth athletes are pushed so hard at an early age; many parents worry their child will fall behind their peers, or that they’ll start too late and “miss out” on the chance to be truly great at something they love.

Which is technically true… but isn’t necessarily what’s best for the athlete themself.

The focus should be on supporting your youth athlete! Single-sport specialization can be done well and safely, but it needs to be guided by the athlete’s experience and preferences. Allow them to set the training pace and learn more about what they truly want — if they want to play soccer, you can start them out with a league.

If they want to be a professional soccer player, be sure to sit down with them and talk through what that process would look like, as well as how much work it takes. Once you’ve set realistic expectations, you can support them in their endeavors; just be sure to check in with your athlete through the process to ensure it’s still something they want to pursue.

And, continue to diversify their training so they don’t grow weary from too much of the same activity. Whether their alternate activities are for supplemental cross-training or simply to provide them another activity to enjoy, diversity of training should be celebrated early on!

What is Multi-Sport Training?

As the name suggests, this approach is when youth athletes participate in more than just one sport, striving for true diversification of training and trying out different activities.

A common example of this is when athletes rotate through seasonal sports (e.g., cross country or football in the fall, basketball or soccer in the winter, and baseball or lacrosse in the spring). Or, if not by season, they may choose simultaneous sports with staggered schedules (e.g., basketball only on Thursdays and Saturdays, but soccer on every other day).

Conversely, if your athlete isn’t competing in multiple sports, this approach to training still encourages incorporating additional activities that can improve their movement control and proprioceptive awareness. This might look like pick-up games in the park or varied cross-training — as long as it’s enjoyable for them!

But, as you can tell from these general examples, having a diverse training schedule can be a lot if not approached the right way. Let’s dive into what that “right approach” looks like.

Best Practices for Multi-Sport Training

With more training tacked onto an athlete’s schedule, one of THE most important aspects is balancing their time and workload.

After all, as good as it is to diversify your training, it’ll only do so much for the athlete if they end up overbooking themselves — or worse, overtraining.

Creating a healthy balance of sports sounds like a lot, and it certainly does require a pension for organization and time management. This is why many coaches and parents opt for seasonal sports, that way they have chunks of time where they know what their youth athlete is focused on, where to take them, and what the training times look like.

But, whether a young athlete focuses on one sport per season, or they juggle multiple activities within the same season, the key is to keep track of everything they do.

Part of that means diligent event-keeping on your calendar for the sake of timeliness and working around school schedules or other extracurriculars.

And the other part involves tracking the athlete’s actual training.

Like single-sport specialization, youth athletes that tackle multi-sport training can also find a lot of benefit in consistent journaling! Keeping a record of sleep patterns, energy levels, and motivation is essential, as these can indicate red flags of overtraining.

On top of this, multi-sport athletes can also track their hydration, nutrition, and warmups and cool-downs between their sports. These data points can provide insight into the athlete’s performance, as well as any areas of concern for potential injury risk.

Important Considerations for Practicing Multiple Sports

Though there are many benefits to multi-sport training, there’s one looming argument that often assuages coaches or parents to stick with only one sport…

“If you want to become a professional athlete, you have to specialize in the sport.”

It’s an understandable thought process. As we pointed out earlier, many world renowned athletes like Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters are praised for their elite abilities, and that gets chalked up to their specialization early on.

However! Just because that proved true for some athletes doesn’t make it true for all — in truth, it’s quite a large misconception.

While there are many athletes who have specialized and gone pro, there are plenty of others that have also made it to the big leagues through multi-sport training.

Take sports icons like Tom Brady and LeBron James: Brady had the option to be either a pro pitcher or football player, and James had his choice of playing in either the NBA or the NFL. (It seems wild to think that either could’ve been in entirely different environments, right?) You also have athletes like Bo Jackson and Dion Sanders, who play TWO professional sports at the same time.

All of these athletes played multiple sports for a majority of their playing years, and they all became phenomenal professionals. So, there’s plenty of real-life examples that demonstrate the benefit of multi-sport training.

Plus, on a more personal level, there’s also a benefit to having youth athletes try different sports. At such a young age, how are athletes supposed to know if their sport is actually their favorite if they haven’t tried others?

Single-sport specialization can often cause young athletes to develop feelings of uncertainty as they progress further into their sport. Without enough training variety, they may wonder if they’re limiting themselves or start pondering the “what-if’s” of alternative sports.

Whereas, with a multi-sport approach, youth athletes have a better chance of learning what they do or don’t enjoy about different activities. This can also prevent them from having an “athlete identity crisis” when they’re older (like when they’re deciding what college to attend or if they should go into pro sports).

Practicing a variety of sports at a younger age will not only improve their physical skill sets, but it can also provide important insight into what they truly enjoy about their training, thus benefiting their mental well-being and decisions down the line.

The Bottom Line

There are plenty of benefits to either method of training, as long as you hash out a solid plan to ensure the athlete’s safety and enjoyment. But, regardless of which approach speaks to you most, there’s one thing that takes precedence over all else…

Listen to your youth athlete(s)!

As they work through their training, pay close attention to how they respond to the activity of choice — both physically and mentally.

When you keep an open line of communication with the athlete, you can make the best collaborative decision to ensure that they truly enjoy what they’re doing. That’s when they’ll feel the most capable and motivated to do and pursue the sport they love.

By Dr. Kevin Vandi DPT OCS CSCS

Dr. Vandi is the founder of Competitive EDGE Physical Therapy — with his background in physical therapy, orthopedics, and biomechanics, he is a highly educated, compassionate specialist. Using state-of-the-art motion analysis technology and data-driven methodologies, Kevin has assisted a wide range of clients, from post-surgery patients to youth and professional athletes. When he isn’t busy working or reading research, he spends his time with his wife Chrissy and their five wonderful children, often enjoying the outdoors and staying committed to an active lifestyle.

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