O’Sullivan: Why single-sport specialization needs to end now

JohnOSullivan-HeaderFor the last few days, my email and social media accounts have been lit up by a simple image first shared with me on Twitter by @ohiovarsity. It is amazing because the image portrays something that is widely known among experts, widely discussed in coaching circles, and has certainly been written about by me and others many times. Yet this excellent blog article on a high school sports site got over half a million shares in the first 3 days it was out because this image touched a nerve

Why? Well, here is the image:

Ohio St recruits

The question I was asked over and over this week was “What do you think of this?”

My answer, over and over was, “Amen, agreed, hopefully now people will start paying attention.”

If it takes an infographic of Urban Meyer’s football recruits at Ohio State to shift the paradigm in youth sports, then so be it.

The image above, which clearly demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of his recruits are multi-sport kids, is not new information, but it has caused quite a stir. Here is what it says in a nutshell:

To be an elite level player at a college or professional sport, you need a degree of exceptional athleticism. And the best medically, scientifically and psychologically recommended way to develop such all around athleticism is ample free play and multiple sport participation as a child.

Why? Well let’s see what the experts say:

Coaches and Elite Athletes

Pete Carroll, former USC and now Seattle Seahawks Football coach, says here:

The first questions I’ll ask about a kid are, ‘What other sports does he play? What does he do? What are his positions? Is he a big hitter in baseball? Is he a pitcher? Does he play hoops?’ All of those things are important to me. I hate that kids don’t play three sports in high school. I think that they should play year-round and get every bit of it that they can through that experience. I really, really don’t favor kids having to specialize in one sport. Even [at USC], I want to be the biggest proponent for two-sport athletes on the college level. I want guys that are so special athletically, and so competitive, that they can compete in more than one sport.”

Dom Starsia, University of Virginia men’s lacrosse:

“My trick question to young campers is always, ‘How do you learn the concepts of team offense in lacrosse or team defense in lacrosse in the offseason, when you’re not playing with your team?’ The answer is by playing basketball, by playing hockey and by playing soccer and those other team games, because many of those principles are exactly the same. Probably 95 percent [of our players] are multi-sport athletes. It’s always a bit strange to me if somebody is not playing other sports in high school.”

Or in this interview with Tim Corbin, coach of the 2014 NCAA national champion Vanderbilt baseball team, on why he chooses multi-sport athletes over single sport kids.

Or Ashton Eaton, world record holder and gold medalist in the decathlon, who never participated in six of the 10 required decathlon events until he got to the University of Oregon.

Or Steve Nash, who got his first basketball at age 13 and credits his soccer background for making him a great basketball player, a similar story to the 100 professional athletes interviewed in Ethan Skolnick and Dr. Andrea Korn’s Raising Your Game .

The list goes on and on.

What about the medical experts?

As I have outlined in my ebook “Is it Wise to Specialize?” and echoed in world renowned orthopedic surgeon James Andrew’s book Any Given Monday, there are strong medical reasons for not specializing at a young age:

  1. Children who specialize in a single sport account for 50 percent of overuse injuries in young athletes, according to pediatric orthopedic specialists.
  2. A study by Ohio State University found that children who specialized early in a single sport led to higher rates of adult physical inactivity. Those who commit to one sport at a young age are often the first to quit, and suffer a lifetime of consequences.
  3. In a study of 1200 youth athletes, Dr. Neeru Jayanthi of Loyola University found that early specialization in a single sport is one of the strongest predictors of injury. Athletes in the study who specialized were 70 to 93 percent more likely to be injured than children who played multiple sports!
  4. Children who specialize early are at a far greater risk for burnout due to stress, decreased motivation and lack of enjoyment
  5. Early sport specialization in female adolescents is associated with increased risk of anterior knee pain disorders including PFP, Osgood Schlatter and Sinding Larsen-Johansson compared to multi-sport athletes, and may lead to higher rates of future ACL tears.

And the sport scientists?

In January 2015, I had the honor of sitting in a lecture with Manchester United performance coach Tony Strudwick, winner of 13 titles as the fitness coach for MUFC’s first team. His advice was that a multi-sport background set up athletes for long-term success by lowering the rates of injuries and making them more adaptable to the demands of elite level play.

“More often than not,” he stated in a recent interview with SoccerWire.com, “the best athletes in the world are able to distinguish themselves from the pack thanks to a range of motor skills beyond what is typically expected in a given sport.” He recommended tumbling and gymnastic movements, as well as martial arts, basketball, and lacrosse as great crossover sports for soccer.

Here are some other advantages I have previously written about:

  1. Better Overall Skills and Ability: Research shows that early participation in multiple sports leads to better overall motor and athletic development, longer playing careers, increased ability to transfer sports skills other sports and increased motivation, ownership of the sports experience and confidence.
  1. Smarter, More Creative Players: Multi-sport participation at the youngest ages yields better decision making and pattern recognition, as well as increased creativity. These are all qualities that coaches of high-level teams look for.
  1. Most College Athletes Come From a Multi-Sport Background: A 2013 American Medical Society for Sports Medicine survey found that 88 percent of college athletes surveyed participated in more than one sport as a child.
  1. 10,000 Hours is Not a Rule: In his survey of the scientific literature regarding sport-specific practice in “The Sports Gene,” author David Epstein finds that most elite competitors require far less than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Specifically, studies have shown that basketball (4000), field hockey (4000) and wrestling (6000) all require far less than 10,000 hours.
  1. There Are Many Paths to Mastery: A 2003 study on professional ice hockey players found that while most pros had spent 10,000 hours or more involved in sports prior to age 20, only 3000 of those hours were involved in hockey specific deliberate practice (and only 450 of those hours were prior to age 12).

Are all sports the same?

No, they are not. They each require specific athletic, technical and tactical skill sets. Some sports, in order to be elite, require early specialization, such as gymnastics and figure skating.

Other sports are so dependent upon physical prowess (American football, basketball, volleyball, rugby and others) that the technical skills and tactical know how can be developed later. There are many stories of athletes taking up these sports in their teens, even 20s, and playing at a very high level because of the ability to transfer skills learned in one sport to another.

And then there are sports like hockey and soccer, which without a doubt require an early introduction to the sport. There are technical movements and skills that are most sensitive to improvement prior to a child’s growth spurt, and it is unlikely that a post-pubescent child is able to catch up if that is their first introduction to the sport.

HOWEVER, there is no evidence that pre-teen athletes in these sports should only play a single sport. As both the hockey evidence and the interview with Tony Strudwick mentioned above demonstrate, playing multiple sports early on sets these athletes up for longer-term success. They can better meet the demands of elite level play. They are less likely to get injured or burn out, and more likely to persist through the struggles needed to become a high-level performer.

If you want your child to play at a high level, then the best thing you can do is help them find a sport that best suits their abilities, and help create an environment that gives them the best chance of success. 

That environment is a multi-sport one. The evidence is in. It is pretty conclusive.

It is time for our youth sports organizations to not only allow but encourage multi-sport participation. Yes, it is tough on the bottom line. But ask yourself this:

Is your bottom line worth more than the well-being of the children you have been entrusted with educating?

So what do you think? Should kids play multiple sports? Only one? If you think specialization is the right path prior to the teenage growth spurt (excluding gymnastics and figure skating), then by all means bring some evidence and links to the discussion. And if not, then how about some thoughts on how we can stand up and change the status quo that forces kids to choose far too young?

Thanks to Urban Meyer and the poignant image of his recruiting class breakdown, we now have the opportunity to have this discussion.

We have the opportunity to serve our children better.

We have the responsibility to help them become better athletes by encouraging them to become all-around athletes.

And we can do this by letting them play multiple sports.

By | January 26, 2015 | 19 Comments | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. EDDUBOCE says:

    You know, even though the English call soccer football, its not the same sport right?

    Now check baseball and see how much advantage there is for baseball players to be multi-sport.

  2. Robert K says:

    Confirmation Bias – the tendency for individuals to favor information or data that support their beliefs. It is also the tendency for people to only seek out information that supports their a priori, or pre-existing, conclusions, and subsequently ignores evidence that might refute that pre-existing conclusion.

    You had a confirmation bias that single sport specialization was/is wrong so you found data and ‘experts’ that support your beliefs. Of course all these ‘experts’ fail to account for – Messi, Pele, Zidane, Ronaldo, Maradona, Ronaldinho, Henry, Neymar, Tiger Woods – who were all single sport athletes.
    I am not saying that kids playing a single sport is better or playing multiple sports is better. I think what is best is – whatever your kid thinks is best. There are plenty of examples to support either way.

  3. Multi-athlete mom says:

    Playing multiple sports at a young age helps children develop their bodies in a more even way. My daughter started out with soccer and joined an academy at age 10 where she played 4-5 times a week. She soon developed Osgoode-Schlatters in both knees and had a terrible time running on the pitch. It turns out, that soccer players notoriously under-develop their glutes and have tight IT bands (just by the nature of the game). Unless they are specifically doing exercises for this, they are more prone to injury. Realistically, how many 10 year olds do exercises and stretches to specifically target these muscles? Once she started playing volleyball and basketball at school, we found that these sports targeted some of her weaker muscles and she became stronger overall. She is now 15 and plays volleyball and soccer at the highest levels and I attribute her success at these sports to playing multiple sports. We are fortunate that both her coaches recognize the benefit of playing multiple sports and to having an “off-season” sport to keep her in shape.

  4. Western Md. Soccer Coach says:

    There is no solid justification for being a multi-sport athlete unless you want to be one. I would argue that you would have a difficult time validating the causality of the statistics above, at least in the pure sense. What the statistics are doing is attempting to draw causation based on the pre-existing data; i.e. since 50% of athletes who get overuse injuries specialize in single sports, we would reduce the over use injuries by 50% if all athletes did not specialize. While that statistic may be accurate, as with all of the statistics listed above, it does not prove causality. I would love to see a research paper done on injury rates and types of players playing at the premiere levels in club sports versus those playing at recreational levels. I do agree that it is not a bad thing especially at a young age 11/12 or below to play multiple sports. As John and others point out you learn different skills and different coping mechanisms as you deal with swinging a bat at a ball as opposed to running up the field and kicking a ball. Now for the comparison to the players/children overseas. One thing we do very well here in the US is to put structure and order in place. We have videos that will teach you the proper technique to hit a baseball, or to shoot a jump shot and we teach those techniques through repetition. A very structured approach, however, if you talk to players from overseas the younger players, while they play at academies and clubs, also have free play of their sport. Time to play away from the coaches where they can experiment and just fool around. We don’t encourage that here in the US for the most part. We want our kids, especially ones who specialize in a sport to constantly be part of a structured environment. I am guilty of this as a coach and a parent, so please don’t think I am claiming that I am perfect. I believe the non-specialization argument is not really rooted in trying to have kids play more sports, I believe at it’s roots the argument is based on allowing players to participate in unstructured (or differently structured) play environments. The other root of the non-specialization argument, in my opinion, is a realization by people like John who realize that youth sports is less for the kids and more for the parents. Many parents, myself included, look at the cost of college and look at sports as a way to offset some of those costs, I mean who would want their kid to get out of college a $100k in debt, and sports can be used to offset the cost. There is nothing wrong with that, until you start pushing your child to perform constantly on the highest level for fear that one bad game or one bad season will ruin the chance at a scholarship or grant-in-aid. This is different than in South America or Europe, where sports are considered viable choices for athletically gifted children. In the UK soccer academies are governed the same way as other apprenticeships and at least at Fulham the players are put through coaching courses in addition to player training. In Europe and South America it is a path of desire as oppose to the path of requirement that it is in America. I will end my mini blog with this though/idea – let the kids decide. If your 8 year old loves soccer and only wants to play soccer, let him play soccer. If he wants to try baseball one spring, let him try. As he gets to 11/12, and decides that he wants to pursue a sport seriously, let him, but if he decides he wants to play 2 or 3 sports semi-seriously let him. The bottom line is that I want the players I am coaching to be on the field because they want to be there not to be there because Mommy and Daddy have forced them to be there, something sadly it took me several years to learn.

    • Beau says:

      You raise a few good points. Though I tend to agree with John about specialization, the truth is that I’m letting my kids decide. (That said, they’re not playing enough organized sports to burn out or suffer overuse injuries — at their ages, they get a lot of physical activity just “playing.”)

      I would argue that we don’t know about causality the other direction, either. Would Messi somehow NOT be Messi if he had played a little basketball or tennis growing up? My guess is that rare talents are going to be rare talents even if they happen to be good all-around athletes as well. I think David Epstein’s “The Sports Gene” has taken a bit of the sting out of the misinterpretation many of us had of Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” prescription.

      I am, though, a little disturbed by seeing the decision framed in terms of a scholarship chase or, in England, a professional chase. We all know how rarely kids get actual scholarships in the USA — particularly anything close to a full ride. In Europe, few of the players who make it to professional clubs’ academies end up with professional careers. And in England, the kids barely even go to school, so they end up at age 20 with few useful skills. (German kids spend much more time in school.)

      • Western Md. Soccer Coach says:

        I agree we don’t know causality the other direction. I would also agree that rare talents are rare talents, however they must refine their skills by specialization but that can occur after age 12.
        While the professional chase/scholarship chase are disturbing it is the reality. When you go to a high level game, most of what you hear on the parent sidelines when discussing their player is what colleges they are looking for, or how they have moved from club X to club Y to get “better exposure”, etc. There are, as you correctly point out, very few full ride scholarships, and many parents who don’t understand the difference between non-revenue sports and revenue sports like football and basketball. Sports can be used as a supplement to the other forms of aid available, it is just another arrow in the quiver, along with academics, outside scholarships etc., but in my opinion, the child needs to be the one picking the sport, not having the sport forced on them. Too many players don’t have a joy in playing soccer, they view it as a job, at the age of 14 or 15, which is wrong. Too many players wouldn’t play pickup soccer or guest play on a rec team, just to play for fun. That is the tragedy in this whole discussion, the game is not fun for kids.

  5. John says:

    Thanks everyone for the comments. As far as soccer is concerned, I did note that I am talking about not specializing prior to the age of 12. Beyond that a soccer player truly has to spend a ton of time playing (one comment mentions high school), yet still needs time off, and playing some pickup basketball won’t hurt. Certainly yoga and perhaps martial arts would benefit him/her (lots of pros do them).

    What amazes me is how many people completely dismiss this with the blanket statement “everywhere else in the world.” Do you not think there are specialization issues there such as burnout and overuse injuries? Do not millions of kids play and only a small fraction make it to the next level? The main point here is that your kids should be exposed to other sports prior to the age of 12 to develop other parts of their athleticism that soccer does not. They do not have the time for free play that they did 20-30 years ago. They do not get a “physical education” in PE like they used to (my kids get 1 day a week) and what the professional coaches and sport scientists tell me in all these other countries you refer to is that the kids are coming into their academies as lesser athletes then they did a few decades ago becasue of the early concentration and lack of play/PE. So soccermom6 and Coach K when you say these studies are not relevant to soccer or that these issues do not exist, let me ask you this: Why is the guy entrusted with the athletic development of all the athletes at one of the 2 most successful soccer clubs in the world for developing future professionals (Manchester United) coming out and saying that your kids should be involved in multiple sports prior to age 12? He has a PhD in exercise science, do you? He forms this opinion on actual research and hands on experience with the best athletes in the world, do you? He encourages kids to play more than one sport. If you met him face to face, why don’t you explain to us what you would say to him while telling him that he is wrong. Because that is what you just stated below.

    • soccermom#6 says:

      John, thanks for responding. In my comment I said I want to know more about issues there. We seem to be talking more about players in US and not elsewhere and I wanted to have experts talk about players overseas for comparison. I will comment further by not going into whether I am qualified to speak on this topic or not. I actually do but I don’t have to justify. Here, I am speaking as a parent. I draw analogies from other walks of life. To be a doctor, you train and focus on certain subjects. To be an engineer or an accountant you train in certain subjects. Similarly, in sports. I get the cross training part and I am strong believer in that (swimming, boxing, weights etc.). Basketball and lacrosse involve running – how good are they as cross training and using different sets of muscle group? If someone can do an article on muscle groups used in different sports, I would love it. Are we over-blowing this issue is all I am asking and thinking out loud. If evidence suggests that we only should play one season of soccer and not year round, then US soccer should step in and stop approving tournaments year round and insist only one season be played. And we all know how that is working out for our college players – they are not ready for professional careers because one season is not enough is what Jurgen Klinsman is saying. Why are state and national soccer associations not on this wagon if it is that critical for youth players – to play only one season of soccer that is?

      • Beau says:

        I don’t trust doctors and accountants who never read anything outside their fields, do you?

        Back to sports — people aren’t suggesting one season only, especially not in college. They’re suggesting that it shouldn’t be 12 months of soccer and nothing else, at least in the preteen years.

        Some supporting evidence (out of a ton of it):



      • John says:

        Stay tuned for my next article for my full thoughts, but I do not see anywhere where I said play one season of soccer. I said every sport is different, and prior to the age of 12 it is good for kids to sample many sports. They can do this and still play many months of soccer. It may be yoga, or martial arts, or tumbling class, or pickup basketball. Will players who play 3 months of soccer a year make it to the pros: highly unlikely if even possible. Will U12 and under players who play a lot of soccer but also sample other sports: the evidence says yes they can. it is our job to create an environment where they can do that, instead of accepting the status quo that does says play 12 months or you are out, because the evidence is quite clear that this is not the right path.

    • JustAParent says:

      I would argue with these constant studies and arguments as well. tumbling and gymnastics are part of the English PE system growing up, as they used to be 30+ years ago in our PE system, and then states basketball and lacrosse are good cross training. As Western MD points out the issue here is we can’t do these in an unorganized way. All of my sons played Bball as well as soccer thru middle school. They then played with friends ini rec leagues once hit HS. They both presently play soccer in college. Their cross training came from the off field work they did. ( I don’t have a PHD but I happen to have a kinesiology/exercise physiology degree and was a D1 Athlete myself). Even at the rec basketball stage in HS with your buddies you will “let them down” on a game day when you have soccer training and/or game. I argue that many more soccer kids are cross training than our studies show. They play pick-up at the gym after working out, etc. I also believe that the large majority of kids are playing multiple sports prior to age 12. It’s at that older age that the choice will have to be made. It’s just the way it is right now if your son desires to play at a D1 level in college. Ask any coach right now where they are recruiting -it’s the DA. As for d3, one of my sons plays in a conference with a certain multiple national champ, and his coach recruits kids who played multiple sports though HS and some while still at college. Guess who doesn’t shine when playing the really best teams. It’s unfortunate but there is not a level of skill, confidence on ball, IQ that the ones who made a choice at 15 to play just soccer show.

      Youngest son playing DA, had to give up MS basketball prior to 8th grade year, his choice. Now playing rec ball with some friends. He has missed games due to training, etc. Not a popular choice with his friends or the dad coach but the agreement we made at start. Biggest fear is a sprained ankle or injury playing this other sport. That fear far outweighs any benefit he would get by playing this other sport but he is a kid, wants to play and I love watching him play bball. Still doing his off-season conditions, strengthening and injury prevention as all boys truly committed to wanting to be the best they can would be doing.

      I just find at all silly quite honestly and using one guys opinion, despite his credentials in England and Man-U, as the bases for an argument on our kids and the American system even sillier.

      • John says:

        Thank you for your comments, I apprecaite those who are willing to make this a discussion and bring this issue to the forefront. What is not perfectly clear in this multisport article, but will be in my follow up piece, is that my soccer discussion is for 12 and under: play more than one sport. After that, if you are aiming for high level play, then yes, specialize, but still take time away, rest, cross train, etc.

        The big problem I see, though, is that the comments from JustaParent are echoed throughout our youth sports system. It is not how it is, so lets ignore the experts because it does not fit our system. This makes no sense to me at all.

        Let me ask you this: If we should not take the advice of a sport scientist with a PhD and decades of experience working with the most elite soccer players in the world (youth to pros), and we should also ignore the advice of every orthopedic physician I have ever heard from, and we should also ignore the warnings from psychologists and evidence about increased burnout, dropout and identity issues without sport sampling before age 12, then by all means tell us whose advice we should follow when designing a pathway for our young players to develop in the US?

        • JustAParent says:

          John, do you have the research that shows prior to U12 children are specializing, not just playing, a single sport?

          In a highly competitive sense prior to U12, but you state not the focus, you may have female gymnasts, ice skaters and possible male/female swimmers but only in rare instances.

          If you have these studies that show the percentage of children prior to U12 playing a single sport I would be interested in reading them.

  6. British trainer in DMV says:

    It’s all relative to the kid, kids outside of America already know at the age of 6 if they want to be a soccer star, therefore only want to do that.

    Most serious top level tennis players make a commitment early also and stick with it.

    Here a lot of kids do multi sports but try and do all at “elite” level and that’s where problems such as injuries/burnout occur.

    I’m not against multi sports but at a certain age, level or when a child shows more desire in one, a choice has to be made if they are not looking to just be “a jack of all trades and a master at none”

  7. soccermom#6 says:

    Until someone explains me why every soccer player in Europe and elsewhere doesn’t have these issues raised here I won’t accept this argument. Players in other countries are all single sport (soccer, rugby, cricket, etc.). None of the players in other countries have injuries because they are specializing in a single sport. Why only us? Something wrong with our youth system? Until we figure that out we should stop writing these articles. Cross training (swimming in summer) or lifting weights after puberty are all good for soccer players but some solid justification is needed as to why a soccer player should play lacrosse or basketball?

  8. Elf821 says:

    What do you do if your child doesn’t want to play any other sport? My son has been obsessed with soccer since he was a young child. We tried T Ball, he did play golf for a few summers, and did some gymnastics classes, but he lives and breathes soccer. He is a sophomore in high school and just doesn’t really want to play another sport.

    I would ask, at least in soccer, if you looked across the globe at whether successful pro soccer players played multiple sports as children. Since the US doesn’t produce many of the pro players in that sport, it might be that soccer is another outlier.

    • Coach K says:

      Did Messi, Neymar, Suarez, Zidane, Ronaldinho, Pele, Maradona, Cafu, Roberto Carlos, Gerrard, Ronaldo, Romario, Valderrama, Etcheverry, Zola, Bergkamp, Henry, Marta, Sissi, Sun Wen, etc., all player multiple sports??? These “scientific” studies are such a waste of time for soccer. To be a top player, you must be dedicated to the skills of the games. Do you need to play a match every week? NO! Do you need to play 20 tournaments a year??? No!!! Can you mix outdoor 11v11 play with futsal, beach soccer, soccer tennis, 4v4, 3v3, etc…Of course and you should. As long as kids love the game, they should play it. This is the only country in the world that creates fear in playing soccer year round, heading the ball, weighing down goals, playing in rain, kids wearing shin guards, etc..why? Because they care about kids??? No, if they cared about kids they would not feed them processed food AT ALL EVER. It is all about liability and law suits. Money or finding a better athlete to win because in youth sports puberty wins. But it does not create world class players hence Americans do not produce world class soccer players. So they need to stop these concepts. End Of.

  9. Tom Burkey says:

    John, unfortunately the majority of American youth sports parents will use this as a basis to justify getting their kids involved in ‘select’ teams in multiple sports. Undoubtedly, this is a train wreck in and of itself and may be worse than specializing. I would like to hear your perspective on this graphic relative to the American ‘select’ sports culture.

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