Can Avoiding Specialization Make You Special?


As the nephew of one of the greatest lacrosse players of all time, Toronto Maple Leaf forward John Tavares had not choice, he was always going to grow up as a multi-sport athlete. Tavares didn’t mind, in fact he credits much of his hockey skill development to the fast paced and tight environment of the box lacrosse floor. Tavares is just one of a growing list of professional athletes advocating against
specializing in a single sport at a young age.

Tavares talks more about the advantages he found growing up as a multi-sport athlete:

While it is impossible to argue against the fact that to play any sport at an elite level, an athlete must eventually become singularly focused on that craft. However, over the last ten years there has been a significant trend towards single sport specialization at increasingly younger ages.

A series of factors appear to be influencing more young athletes and their parents to commit to a single sport at a young age. A couple of the major themes include:

  1. College and Professional Team Talent Searches
    As scouting and recruiting has become increasingly sophisticated and competitive, more teams are signing up athletes to their programs at younger and younger ages. The biggest culprit in this movement appears to be major European soccer clubs who have full rosters of 7-year-old players as part of their system. In an effort to find a recruiting edge, NCAA programs have also made headlines recently by signing commitments to grade school athletes across a wide range of sports.
  2. The 10,000 Hour Rule
    Originally published in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers (2008), this “theory” claimed that the key to achieving world-class expertise in any skill, primarily comes down to practicing the correct way, for a total of 10,000 hours. While Gladwell has publicly stated that this theory does not apply to sports, many coaches, parents, and athletes have clung to it as the “magic formula” for high sports achievement.
  3. The Tiger Effect
    The shift towards single-sport specialization seems to have started right around the time when Tiger Woods was dominating the golf and sporting world during the late 1990s. Since his debut, much has been written and talked about Tiger’s up-bringing and training with his father Earl. Tiger’s success in the early part of his career seemed to validate the approach he took as a youngster, dedicating his entire sporting life (and life in general) towards perfecting his craft. Tiger’s more recent struggles with injuries may offer a warning against single sport specialization (more on that later).
  4. The Psychology of Missing Out
    It seems that one of the most significant reasons for an increase in single sport specialization may come from between the ears. Fear of Missing Out (or FOMO) is a form of anxiety driven from a lack of participation (a feeling of standing on the sidelines while others are in the action). Social Comparison Theory – comparing and judging our progress and training with the habits of our peers – also seems to play a factor in the movement towards specialization. This theory supports the notion that it can be very difficult for players and parents not to look at their competitors and teammates for an anchor in “what appropriate training” looks like. With everyone looking at their neighbour, a snowball effect of over-training easily occurs.

The case for single sport specialization is an easy one; when an athlete can dedicate themselves fully to a chosen sport, they increase the time they have to acquire that sport’s specific skills. This skill acquisition is a necessary step for athletes to excel at an elite level.

However, specializing too early has some clear drawbacks that have been supported through academic research including:

  • A significant increase in over-use injuries
  • An increase early quitting
  • An increase in athletes reporting “burnout”

From a physical standpoint, it seems that the case against early specialization is strong. A 2016 study from the University of Wisconsin found that high school athletes who specialized sustained 60% more new lower-body injuries in a year than athletes who played multiple sports.

From a psychological perspective, there is also mountain evidence that single sport athletes are experiencing increased rates of burnout, leading to more quitting of athletics altogether (Loyola University Study, 2012). This is not surprising when we consider that a single sport life will inevitably bring less variety and dynamic training to the athlete, not to mention the reduced social circles that typically accompany one sport. It appears that this “burnout” is long lasting as well, with an Ohio State study finding that children who specialized early in a single sport typically have higher rates of adult physical inactivity than their multi-sport peers.

 For those loyal believers in the 10,000 Hour Rule, a 2003 study on professional hockey players suggests that there is more to the rule than meets the eye. The research showed that while most pros had spent 10,000 hours or more engaged in sports prior to the age of 20, only 30% of that time was devoted to hockey specific practice. Even more interesting, only 450 hours of hockey practice occurred before the age of 12.

It’s not just John Tavares who is promoting the importance of athletes being exposed to multiple sports. J.J. Watt of the NFL’s Houston Texans has been outspoken about kids playing multiple sports. Watt grew up in Wisconsin and was an avid hockey player before he focused his efforts on football midway through high school. In 2017 Watt tweeted,

“If someone encourages your child to specialize in a single sport, that person generally does not have your child’s best interests in mind.”

Clearly, Watt believes in the multi-sport approach.

Novak Djokavic has attributed his above average flexibility on the tennis court, to the years he spent skiing as a youngster.

Elite level coaches also appear to see the benefits of exposure to different sports. NCAA Football Coaches Urban Meyer (Ohio State) and Dabo Swinney (Clemson) are both on record saying that they actively recruit multi sport athletes. Swinny told the NY Times, “If it comes down two athletes who seem comparable on skill, I’ll always take the multi-sport athlete”.

The desire for well rounded athletes doesn’t just show up at the college level either. In 2017, 30 of the 32 first round NFL draft picks were multi-sport athletes in high school.

NHLer Jakob Chychrun also talks about how playing multiple sports growing up helped ignite his passion for hockey in the lead up to the season, “Playing different sports turns you into an athlete. And when you take that time off from hockey, you get to miss the game. You work that much harder in the off-season because you can’t wait to get back.”

As mentioned earlier, in order to reach elite levels of sport, athletes will inevitably be required to become single-sport specialists. Research does not give us a clear cut age, but study after study suggest that the longer athletes can remain in a multi-sport environment the better.

Researcher David Hemery conducted interviews with 53 super-elite athletes (grand slam winners, MVPs, Hall of Famers, etc.) across a variety of sports including hockey, soccer, football, golf and tennis. Interestingly he found that the average age of transition to single sport occurred within this group at 16 years old. Anecdotally, many of the athletes interviewed explained that if they could do it again, they would have waited even longer to specialize.

For young athletes and parents debating specializing before high school, there are a few advantages to multi-sport training that need to be considered. At a very practical level playing a variety of sports increases the athlete’s exposure to more situations, teammates and coaches – broadening their perspective.

For older athletes, who have already become single sport specialists, the research suggests that infusing the offseason schedule with some other sports could be hugely beneficial for reinvigorating the body and the mind.

Sport scientists argue that playing multiple sports is good for development of the mind, it provides opportunities for the brain to merge and generalize motor skills learned from the athlete’s primary sport and adapt them to new and varied environments.

Sidney Crosby might sum it up best, when he talks about how playing different sports can impact your mindset and perspective,

“I think playing multiple sports is good for you mentally. If you’re really good
in one sport by maybe not so good in the other, you see a different perspective.
You might have to learn how to be a better teammate when you don’t play as much.
You get to hear from different coaches who teach differently. There’s a lot to be
gained for playing a variety of sports, whether you end up playing professionally
or just for life in general”

As you start to plan your athletic future (or your simply your offseason), don’t be in such a rush to specialize. The path to the elite levels of sport is a long and steady climb – a race won down the stretch and not at the start. Resisting the temptation to follow in your neighbour’s footsteps may actually give you the mental and physical edge you need to actually become elite.

Bell, David & Post, Eric & Trigsted, Stephanie & Hetzel, Scott & McGuine, Timothy & Brooks, Alison. (2016). Prevalence of Sport Specialization in High School Athletics: A 1-Year Observational Study. The American journal of sports medicine. 44. 10.1177/0363546516629943.

Jayanthi, N., Pinkham, C., Dugas, L., Patrick, B., & LaBella, C. (2013). Sports Specialization in Young Athletes: Evidence-Based Recommendations. Sports Health5(3), 251–257.

Baker, J. (2003). Early specialization in youth sport: A requirement for adult expertise? High Ability Studies, 14, 85-94

Hemery, D. (1986). The Pursuit of Sporting Excellence. London: Collins.


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