By Melisa Abesa, PT, DPT and Stephanie Lyda, ATC

What do the winners of the 2015 Masters Tournament and the Women’s World Cup have in common? One shocking response – Basketball!

Jordan Spieth and members of the Women’s U.S. National soccer team accredit a large chunk of their renowned athletic success to being multi-sport athletes until high school or college age. Jordan enjoyed playing basketball with his brother Steven, and was also a successful quarterback and pitcher through his high school career4. Abby Wambach and Morgan Brien were basketball stars in high school, Amy Rodriguez and Lauren Holiday ran track, and Whitney Engen excelled in volleyball3. “A quick survey of members of the squad found that collectively they played at least 14 different sports competitively while growing up, as well as soccer. And significantly, all believe the other disciplines enhanced rather than hindered their soccer careers3.”

With the rate of specialization in our youth population on the rise (at a younger and younger age!), it is a helpful reminder to take a step back and remember that variation is a positive factor, especially in the developing athlete. The advantages of multi-sport participation are immense. Having a diverse background in sports allows the development of very different skills that have crossover benefits. Wambach credits her impressive heading abilities in soccer to the reactive skills and timing developed rebounding a basketball. Engen reports the benefits of communication and spatial awareness from volleyball4. Every sport will provide unique challenges to strength, power, balance, flexibility, and agility, which will help improve overall fitness and athleticism. Spieth easily translated functional movement skills across sports. “Throwing a baseball or football is a tremendous movement prep for golf, as it teaches the athlete to generate power from the ground force reaction and transfer that power to their arms3.” Spieth’s ambidexterity as a left-handed thrower and a right-handed golfer proved to be beneficial in balancing out an otherwise one-sided sport. Rotating at high speeds in both directions allows cross-body symmetry and decreases the risk of overuse injuries.

Additionally, avoiding specialization early on can prevent burn out – both physically and mentally. As stated by Lauren Holiday, “Doing different things develops different parts of your body. It can help prevent injuries and definitely help prevent burnout3.” Wambach spoke on the same topic and shared that playing other sports during the year gave her a chance to miss playing soccer, allowing her to look forward to the season with anticipation3.

Recent research supports late specialization as well. “For most sports, intense training in a single sport to the exclusion of others should be delayed until late adolescence to optimize success and minimize risk for injury and psychological stress2.” Coaches and parents see sports specialization as a way for their athletes to achieve expertise. This shifts the focus of athletics in youth toward skill development and achievement, versus fun. An international study looked at athletes and the time that they began specialization. The elite athletes played multiple sports during their developmental years (defined in the article as 11 and younger), as opposed to the near-elite athletes who specialized at a younger age. They concluded that waiting until the athlete reaches physical maturity to specialize could be more likely to result in elite status1. The greater the number of activities athletes participated in at a younger age, the less sport-specific training they needed in order to attain expertise in their sport5. This is apparent in Olympians as well. “In 2014, the USOC completed a comprehensive survey of their Olympians and found that, on average, Olympians played three sports per year from ages 10-14, and over two sports per year from ages 15-183.”

The three separate research articles cited all supported the same thought. Intense training in a specific sport should be delayed until physical maturity to optimize chance of athletic success and achievement of elite status, and to decrease risk of overuse injuries and prevent burnout. TPI puts it best. “Develop the athlete first, then the golfer4.”


References:

1. Feeley B, Agel J, LaPrade R. When Is It Too Early for Single Sport Specialization? American Journal of Sports Medicine. 30 March 2015. Read Full Article Here

2. Hall R, Barber Foss K, Hewett T, Myer G. Sports Specialization is Associated with An Increased Risk of Developing Anterior Knee Pain in Adolescent Female Athletes. PubMed Central. 2014 March 12. Read Full Article Here

3. Rogers, Martin. U.S. women were multi-sport athletes before focusing on soccer. USA Today. 3 July 2015. Read Full Article Here

4. Titleist Performance Institute. Jordan Spieth: Athlete First. 20 June 2015. mytitleist.com. Read Full Article Here

5. Neeru J, Pinkham C, Dugas L, Patrick B, LaBella C. Sports Specialization in Young Athletes: Evidence-Based Recommendations. Sports Health. 5 May 2013. Read Full Article Here