The Importance of Playing Multiple Sports

By: Aaron Locks, NAofA CEO and Founder

During my youth, we engaged in a wide array of activities as children. We participated in various sports, invented our own games, and competed on a daily basis.

I am of the opinion that a child’s physical capacity resembles that of a versatile all-terrain vehicle and should be treated as such. It doesn’t make sense to me for a child to focus exclusively on a single sport for more than 4.5 to 5 months in any given year. Evidently, I am not alone in this viewpoint.

Consider the following analogy: while I do enjoy eating steak, consuming it every day of the year would make it mundane and monotonous. In fact, I might even consider becoming a vegan, despite my love for steak. Similarly, if children perceive sports as a job, particularly prior to their high school years, there is a significant likelihood that they will lose their passion for the game and ultimately quit. Incidentally, young children who quit a sport rarely return years later with a desire to try again.

To put it simply, engaging in multiple sports as a child:

  1. Cultivates a well-rounded athletic mindset
  2. Prevents burnout
  3. Reduces the risk of overuse injuries
  4. Facilitates the development of higher levels of social and emotional skills

There is a perception that early specialization in sports guarantees future success. For these kids, the biggest reason they are pushed to specialize so early is due to the fear that if they don’t, they will never be competitive enough or be able to compete at an elite level let alone get a college scholarship. These young athletes are often pushed into specializing early by their league managers, travel team owners, coaches, or parents who have been swayed by this thought. Consequently, it becomes hard to convince parents and their children that participating in multiple sports offers more benefits in terms of physical health, mental well-being, sports performance, and sustained interest in participation.

That being said, research on top-tier college and professional athletes reveals that a significant proportion of these elite individuals specialized after the age of 13, rather than in early childhood. Although many young children may display remarkable skill on the field or court in terms of ball control, there isn’t enough evidence to support the notion that intense training and specialization before puberty are necessary prerequisites for attaining elite status in most sports.

There appears to be an escalating race toward securing college scholarships for our children. I frequently encounter parents who have been sold the idea that unless their child plays year-round, engages in travel teams, focuses solely on one sport, or competes at a high level from a young age, they stand no chance of obtaining a college scholarship and will be left behind. As someone with almost four decades of experience in managing youth sports, I strongly disagree with this.

There is a time for work and a time for play in sports. Most importantly, children should develop a genuine love for playing the sport. Coach Wooden, through his Pyramid of Success, taught me the importance of striking a balance between industriousness and enthusiasm. The absence of one negates the other. Consider this: if you work diligently but derive no enjoyment from your efforts, you will eventually quit. Conversely, if you possess boundless enthusiasm but fail to put in the necessary work, progress remains elusive. It is only through the balance of play and work that sustainable success becomes attainable.

Kids should see sports as play, a way to express their induvial abilities as part of a team, develop communication skills, learn confidence, fail, and develop a sense of how much they truly love playing and competing. Playing multiple sports as a pre-teen has social, emotional, medical, and physical benefits.

Still unconvinced? Consider the following:

  • According to the National Federation of High School Sports, 88% of all NCAA athletes participated in more than one sport during their childhood.
  • Out of 47 high school football players recruited by Ohio State Football, only 5 played football exclusively, while the remaining 42 were multi-sport athletes, as reported by 24/7 Sports.
  • Contrary to popular belief, early sports specialization can be more detrimental than beneficial to a child, as stated by Modern Sports PT.
  • The National Library of Medicine found no correlation between early childhood specialization and long-term sports participation or collegiate athletic involvement.
  • Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta reports that multi-sport athletes have the opportunity to utilize and strengthen various muscle groups, thereby reducing the risk of injuries.

Dave Wright, co-founder of the Player Development Project, asserts that mounting evidence suggests early specialization in a single sport can hinder children’s athletic, psychological, and social development. Encouraging early specialization may limit children’s opportunities for informal play and lock them into a sporting path they chose at a young age, often as young as five or six years old.

I have personally witnessed the benefits of playing multiple sports from my own children, who are now adults. They participated in various sports from a young age until high school, experiencing different coaches, sports, positions, and teammates. The experience was nothing short of magical!

Undeniably, there is no better way for young athletes to develop their sports skills while simultaneously honing their social abilities, emotional resilience, overcoming obstacles, forging new friendships, and exploring diverse experiences. Additionally, it adds an element of enjoyment to their journey.

Before you commit your child to a single sport, I encourage you to carefully consider the many advantages of participating in multiple sports. I firmly believe that playing team sports offers unparalleled opportunities for children to acquire essential life skills. As parents and guardians entrusted with the well-being of our children, I encourage you to foster a love for playing multiple sports, embracing new experiences, and cultivating a healthy mindset toward physical activity. Such development is paramount to their success in both the realm of sports and life in general.

The National Academy of Athletics champions the notion of allowing kids to explore any sport or activity that piques their interest. In my view, providing children with a safe, encouraging, and fun environment to learn the fundamentals represents the best way to help them develop a genuine passion for any sport they choose.

We can never predict which sport our child will ultimately fall in love with. However, I can assure you that far too many children, who were pushed to specialize prematurely and compete before they were ready, have abandoned sports.

Introducing children to competitive or single-sport programs at an early age will likely yield the opposite effect that parents desire. If you wish for your child to continue playing the sport you cherish, consider enrolling them in a fundamental camp or clinic before involving them in a league, team, or travel club. This approach will help them develop a comprehensive understanding of the sport, and its requisite skills, and expose them to both failure and success without the pressures of performing in front of large crowds. Embrace the journey and relish the experience.

If you seek assistance in fostering your child’s interest in athletics, promoting an active lifestyle, and instilling valuable life skills associated with sports, I invite you to explore our programs. I assure you that my staff will motivate them to give their best effort each day, challenge them through enjoyable games, and aid in developing their skills and sports intelligence, offering them a chance to cultivate a lifelong love for playing and competing.