Why is multi-sport participation important for your child?
Sport is an activity that requires the integration of several human abilities and processes. The notion that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in order to become a professional is simply not true. Whilst children grow up, sports are supposed to be seen as a get away from everyday life, for example; to get away from school, homework and household tasks. These are the years that children will develop an interest in, even grow to loves and participate in sports, which increases the chances of participation in their adult lives.
In infancy, between the ages of 1 to 3, the basic locomotor skills are learnt, i.e. walking, running, jumping and skipping. These are developed through instruction and play. The quicker your child learns these basic locomotor skills; the quicker they start learning more complex motor skills. Working with Challenger Sports as a soccer coach, ‘Tiny Tikes’ was an hour session in which motor skills were developed, in addition to basic soccer skills such as running with the ball, throwing, catching and jumping. Although it was named a “soccer” session, a more appropriate name would have been a “motor skills” learning session, as that is what it largely comprised of. Don’t underestimate the importance of making games fun, for example, ‘big bad wolf’ for running and ‘the floor is lava’ to help with jumping from spot to spot, this helps to engage the child and maintain interest.
Childhood- Sampling years
In childhood, from the ages of 4-12, learning fundamental motor skills are important for future athletic ability. Fundamental skills include catching, kicking, swimming, throwing and bike riding to name a few. By participating in a variety of sports, children experience different physical, cognitive and psycho-social environments. In addition, playing different informal sports as much as possible will benefit the child, for example playing football in the street, basketball and other sports, as they can play an organized sport with their own adoption of rules and are not restricted by minimal equipment, size of the area they play in or numbers of players.
Having more established motor skills, allows children more opportunity to be affluent in different sports. For example, if you never established throwing as a child, it will be hard to take part in sports such as baseball, rugby or basketball. As a child, my only interest was in football, having little to no interest in any other sport. At Secondary school, when introduced to alternative sports, I could not catch well in cricket or throw a good free throw in basketball. What fundamental motor skill did I lack?
Coaches and parents influence the child’s basic psychological needs through fun and enjoyment, building confidence and increasing task mastery. Coaches should develop the love of the sport and not ‘kill and drill’, aid the child’s mastery of the skill rather than yelling at the child because they cannot do it. This will only result in drop out. Winning is not important, focus on the childs development and participation.
“Research in athletes has not consistently demonstrated that early intense training is essential for attainting an elite level in sports” (Jayanthi et al., 2013).
Early specialisation in just one sport has been linked to drop out, burn out and injury. Ultimately, losing love of the sport. Specialisation in youth is also linked with reduced motor development, as children focus on motor skills for their chosen sport rather than diverse motor skills through different sports (Mostafavifar, 2013).
Some sports however require early specialisation, for example, gymnasts careers are very short, ending in their early 20s. The average age of female gymnasts is 16 years of age demonstrating how a lack of early specialisation in certain sports can impede peak performance. Coaches have a limited time to develop skills, therefore the pressure on the child will be greater than other sports (Jayanthi et al., 2013).
When children find a love in sports, they are usually happy to do that sport all year round, however, children still need to do other sports. For example, Jordan Speith’s mother said: “He hung up his golf clubs during (American) football and baseball season—he was a quarterback and a pitcher—two pretty big roles. Then, he’d pick up golf again when summer rolled around.” Thus showing the importance of a range of sports, even though he might have only developed a few specific skills in baseball and football, it is likely to have affected his golf skills by transferring a range of skills into his golf game. For example, perception, hand eye co-ordination, etc.
Early Teens- Specialising years
Sports specialization, between the ages of 12-16, is defined as intense, year-round training in a single sport with the exclusion of other sports. Specialising in a sport becomes ‘deliberate practice’ and not just ‘deliberate play.’ This indicates that specific skills are learnt, developed and specialised through repetitive performance intended to increase performance skill.
Evidence suggests that, for most sports, children who participate in multi-sports from the ages of 0-12 are more likely to be more successful than children that participate in one sport. Multi-sports provide a child with different physical, cognitive and psychosocial environments, it can provide the child with increased motivation through fun, enjoyment, task mastery and aiding basic psychological needs. A child expected to ‘work’ is unlikely to reach a stage in which they can specialise as they are more likely to burn out and fall out of love with the sport. When the enjoyment is lost, the sport then becomes something they are trying to get avoid…a chore!
Late teens- Investment years
After the age of 16, teenagers should now consider becoming specialised in their chosen sport. In England, athletes are largely selected to attend high performance centres and train specifically for their sport. For example, football academies and the Olympic pathway programme. In the USA, high school athletes anticipate college scholarships if they are talented enough. By becoming sport specific, training should now be that sport specific, i.e. strength, conditioning and cardiovascular endurance. But this is not the end, your child now needs to focus and train harder than ever before to reach their fullest potential. In this competitive environment, complacency leads to the termination of contracts or scholarships…and ultimately dreams.
Even if your child does not become an elite athlete, keep supporting them and aid their competitiveness. They might not become an elite athlete, but they can still play and be competitive. Anomalies, such as Jamie Vardy, shows that it can still happen if your child works hard and keeps playing the sport they love. Be honest with your child so that they are aware of the challenges that surround the competitiveness of becoming an athlete. Encourage your child to participate in other aspects of the sport if they do not want to play or are unable to play anymore. For example, refereeing or coaching themselves, journalism, etc.
Elite athletes are more likely to initiate ‘intense’ training later in adolescence. A survey of 148 elites and 95 ‘near-elite’ Danish athletes found that the elite group spent fewer hours practicing their main sport than the near elite athletes before the age of 18. By the age of 18, both groups had the same amount of practice hours but by 21, elites had accumulated more practice hours (Jayanthi et al., 2013). This suggests that to be an elite athlete, you don’t need to practice one sport to become the best in that sport.
In addition, it was found that the greater number of sports played by high level athletes in their sampling years, the less sports-specific practice was necessary to acquire expertise in their sport (Baker et al., 2003). Thus arguing the fact that doing multi-sports are important for your child as it is easier to transition to sport specific practice.
Through the years, children develop an intrinsic motivation to play sports which decreases chances of obesity, heart disease and increases mental wellbeing. The likelihood of your child becoming a professional in their chosen sport is very low (NCAA). Instead of focusing on their talent alone, enhance their ability and learning first. Foster a “growth mindset” in your child, with a focus on fun, effort and improvement. The rest will follow. If not, then you have given them a chance to participate in sport for the rest of their lives.
CôTé, J, Lidor, R., & Hackfort, D. (2009). ISSP position stand: To sample or to specialize? Seven postulates about youth sport activities that lead to continued participation and elite performance. International journal of sport and exercise psychology, 7(1), 7-17.
O’Sullivan, J. (2015, June 23). Jordan Speith’s multi-sport path to golf stardom. Changing the Game Project. Retrieved from changingthegameproject.com/jordan-spieths-multi-sport-path-to-golf-stardom/
Jayanthi, N. A., Pinkham, C., Durazo-Arivu, R., Dugas, L., & Luke, A. (2011). The risks of sports specialization and rapid growth in young athletes. Clin J Sports Med, 21(2), 157.
Jayanthi, N., Pinkham, C., Dugas, L., Patrick, B., & LaBella, C. (2013). Sports specialization in young athletes: evidence-based recommendations. Sports health, 5(3), 251-257.
Mostafavifar, A. M., Best, T. M., & Myer, G. D. (2013). Early sport specialisation, does it lead to long-term problems?.
Baker, J. (2003). Early specialization in youth sport: A requirement for adult expertise?. High ability studies, 14(1), 85-94.