Steve Nash promotes “it”. Wayne Gretzky concurs. As does Gareth Edwards. Roger Federer, Derek Jeter, Babe Zaharias, Ash Barty also. Sporting legends all.
After fifty plus years, first as an enthusiastic schoolboy of moderate ability, later as a committed coach, please add me to the list of supporters as well.
“It” is a well-rounded, multi-sport approach for young, developing athletes. Certainly, mountains of research, concrete examples, and considerable anecdotal evidence, suggest it is the route to follow.
Not for me the ever-growing number of children and teenaged athletes now specializing. I wonder why they choose this pathway. Do they and their parents actually believe the child will be the next great player in that one sport? Dreams may be one thing, yet the likelihood is beyond slim to say the least. Indeed, at virtually every level, whether local, regional, provincial, or national, the best 11 year old performer is rarely still the best at age 17. Any initial success is almost certainly due to physical dominance and having invested more time in the particular discipline.
Moreover, with the one sport comes, far to early, a focus on results. On early peak performance, on “age grade” success, on systems, rigidity, set patterns. No time for other pursuits, for rest and recovery, no windows for proper strength and conditioning programs. Inventiveness, mastery of skills, artistry all kicked to the curb.
Add in a ridiculous number of games, of too many tournaments. A relentless hamster wheel. Clubs, academies, specialist coaches, all demanding total commitment every day, every week, every month, the whole year. Their livelihoods depending on it. Family finances drain away while pressure piles on the athletes.
Instead, how about the alternative?
About playing a variety of sports, changing gears every few weeks or months. To keep physically and mentally fresh. To dramatically lessen the chance of injury. Committing fully to specific motor tasks may be understandable, but overuse and repetitive actions can negatively impact the development of muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
Secondly, a multi-sport approach guarantees exposure to a far wider range of transferable athletic skills. Soft hands, the weight of a kick, the flight of a pass, tracking a ball in the air, scooping up a ball from an awkward short hop, absorbing contact, shifting body weight to generate maximum power, anticipating situations, playing angles. These apply to multiple sports.
I reflect on my own formative years. Basically, until age twelve, maybe even later, I am responsible for much of my own athletic development. It is a magical time. Endless freedom to experiment, alone or with friends. Throwing, catching, dribbling, shooting, kicking, skating, stickhandling, swimming, swinging a club, becomes second nature. A grab bag of core skills that eventually underpin whatever future achievements I might enjoy.
In addition, other parts of the package include gaining natural strength and agility. Add balance, endurance, acceleration, foot speed, flexibility, and hand eye coordination. With better awareness, decision making, competitive spirit and communication skills thrown in for good measure.
In my experience, such athletes, exposed as they are to multiple opportunities, different mentors, new training techniques, are invariably more coachable, more creative, more resilient. They adapt and transition better, display important social skills. Are more supportive team players. And, without question, they are more likely to remain active throughout their adult lives. With exercise a key foundation of lifelong health and wellness.
Maybe my viewpoints are too simplistic. No doubt many will contest and pick away at my rationale and pro multi-sport stance. Yet, I do not care. I know what I currently see and what I have seen for too much of the past half century. I just cannot imagine anything better than variety, than the unbridled pleasure and enjoyment of months spent together with friends, moving in concert from season to season. All the encounters and involvements, the ups and downs, the twists and turns, the laughter. I would not trade these for the world.
Why miss out on this, why toil away at a single vocation, when fewer than 1% of high schoolers go on to compete athletically at post-secondary level or beyond? Especially if early specialization arguably hurts overall performance and development.
Indeed, a slavish pursuit of the same sport year after year just cannot be much fun. If it were, a distressingly large percentage of youngsters, the majority before the age of fifteen, would not grow bored, burn out or quit. Barely given time to breathe, they battle physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion.
I suggest they shift gears, look for continual changes of scenery. If these multi-sport athletes are good enough, disciplined enough, competitive enough, by age seventeen they will still have plenty of time to make the necessary headway in their chosen pursuit. In fact, they will have likely improved their chances for success.
By way of contrast, perhaps those on the one sport journey during their formative years might seek wisdom and guidance from an old Welsh proverb. As they contemplate growing up with a never ending, unbending, singular focus, they should consider “Gormod o bwdin dagith gi”.
That, more often than not, “too much pudding makes even a dog sick.”