With more and more club teams and “elite” youth programs popping up in sports, there is a lot of pressure for athletes and parents to “specialize” in one sport year-round instead of participating in multiple sports throughout the year. Is one option better to become an elite athlete or do both have an equal chance of helping athletes stay healthy and optimize their opportunity to maximize their potential.?
It is not uncommon for coaches, parents, and athletes to believe that specializing in a sport at an early age is the secret ingredient to becoming a world-class athlete, especially when you consider the success of athletes like Tiger Woods and Rafael Nadal, who excelled in their sports at an early age. However, research exploring elite athlete development suggests that athletes that specialize early and succeed at the highest level, are the exception to the rule, not the rule itself.
There is also a myth that participating in many different sports is not advantageous in advancing an athletes’ ability. Athletes are able to develop a variety of skills by playing multiple sports that will eventually transfer over to their primary sport. In fact, researchers have found elite athletes spent less time training in their primary sport before the age of 15 compared to their less successful peers.
A sports scientist by the name of Istvan Balyi created the Long Term Athletic Development model (LTAD). This model is a framework for an optimal training, competition, and recovery schedule for each stage of athletic development. Coaches who engage in the model and its practices are more likely to produce athletes who reach their full athletic potential. The principles of this research have been adopted by youth athletic associations globally as the framework for proper management of youth and adolescent growth and development processes. It also identified the critical periods of accelerated adaptation to training.
When considering which is better multi-sport vs sport specific it’s important to evaluate the long term effects of each scenario. Specializing in a single sport early can lead to problematic injuries, overtraining, and burnout. Although there are short term benefits to specialization, such as getting more repetition; doing this early on is more detrimental than a competitive advantage long term. Participating in multiple sports allows an athlete to acquire a variety of skills and experience different environments that will transfer as the athlete further develops and chooses his or her primary sport. Single sport specialization is advantageous as an athlete develops fundamental skills and adapts to optimal windows of trainability. The best time to specialize in a single sport is around 15 years old. At this time an athlete is physically and mentally prepared for higher training volume. At this age the athlete is more than able to make up for time NOT spent in early specialization.